Review: “On Your Feet”

RECOMMENDED

Where: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St.
When: through July 5
Tickets: $33-$100
Phone: 800-773-2000

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

If you’re a fan of Gloria and Emilio Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine, the pre-Broadway world premiere of “On Your Feet” is likely to … well, bring you to your feet, as it did the opening night audience, for a standing ovation. And even if you’re not familiar with the multi-Grammy Award-winning crossover Latin pop superstar and her husband, you’ve got to appreciate the talent assembled onstage and behind the scenes to tell their story.

That lineup starts with the Estefans themselves, who seem to have been intimately involved in everything from promoting the musical to doing the orchestrations of their biggest hits which are performed by an onstage orchestra that includes several members of the Miami Sound Machine. Interspersed among the numbers performed rock-concert-style—”Rhythm is Gonna Get You,” “Conga,” “Get On Your Feet”—are a series of power ballads designed to further the plot, such as “Anything for You,” which is used as Gloria’s audition song for Emilio; “When Someone Comes Into Your Life”; “If I Never Got to Tell You,” and “Don’t Want to Lose You.” Some traditional Cuban music, especially early on, illuminates the roots of the Estefan sound, which was very innovative in the 1970s and1980s.

Directed by two-time Tony Award-winner Jerry Mitchell (“Kinky Boots,” “Hairspray”) and choreographed by Olivier Award-winner Sergio Trujillo (“Jersey Boys,” “Memphis”), the show has a book by Academy Award-winner Alexander Dinelaris (“Birdman” screenplay). Scenic Designer David Rockwell has been nominated for three Tony Awards, and lighting designer Kenneth Posner, sound designer Steve Kennedy, and costume designer Emilio Sosa have all won or been nominated for Tony Awards.

Ana Villafane, who will be making her Broadway debut, leads the incredibly energetic ensemble as Gloria and is a good choice. She sings, dances, and acts up a storm in a role that requires her to grow subtly over time, and she also has convincing chemistry with Josh Segarra, whose Emilio is the model of the loving support any woman would want, even if he’s sometimes a tentative singer and his Cuban-accented English is a little hard to understand (and amusingly peppered with malapropisms like “consort” in place of “consult”). Alma Cuervo plays Consuelo, the beloved grandmother who encourages Gloria to follow her dreams, while Andrea Burns has the less rewarding task of portraying her fierce, unhappy mother, Gloria Fajardo, though her flashback performance in a Havana nightclub is a delight.

By this point, those who aren’t Estefan fans may be wondering if “On Your Feet!” is worth seeing. The answer is “yes” and “maybe.” Although I was put off by the blaring opening number, complete with arena lighting, and could have done with one less emotional-button-pushing ballad, the songs were for the most part entertaining and performed well.

The script, on the other hand, is rather formulaic, and some of the dialogue is banal and boring (for example, a bit about laundry and detergents). Starting with Estefan at the height of her fame and the bus accident that almost kills her, it flashes rather confusingly back and forth in time and place to chart her rise from humble beginnings and love affair with fellow Cuban-American Emilio. Predictable obstacles include the disapproval of her mother, whose own dreams were thwarted and from whom she becomes estranged. Also, the opposition of cartoonish recording executives to any innovations that might rock the boat of a successful “brand,” thus prompting the Estefans to take control of their own careers. This empowerment scenario went over well on opening night. Gloria’s own shyness and care-giving relationship with her adored but ill father also gets attention, as does the influence of her feisty abuela.

The second act focuses on how Gloria overcomes almost overwhelming odds to recover from the near-death experience and perform again in a year. The other thread is complete about-face of her mother who, spurred by almost losing her daughter (the thing she says she feared all along), becomes a paragon and even accepts Emilio, though why she objected to him so strongly in the first place isn’t adequately explained.

What this biographical jukebox musical doesn’t have is any of the internal demons that usually plague pop icons. There are no bouts of alcoholism, drug abuse, or other addictions. Repetitive arguments with Mom seem inserted just to provide some dramatic tension. The marital discord is limited to a scene in which Gloria accuses Emilio of pushing her too hard. Our heroine bounces back from paralysis with unstinting determination and pluck, giving no real sense of the pain caused by the spinal fusion and extensive physical therapy she endured.

Naturally, the involvement of the Estefans, and fact that they’re still alive, means that we’re probably not getting the whole story, but I couldn’t help wishing that “On Your Feet!” felt a little less sanitized and inspirational. (There’s even a gospel choir for the hodgepodge of a finale.) Still, I guess part of the appeal is that this is what people want the story to be, which may be enough—along with the music and dancing—to propel the show to success when it opens at the Marquis Theatre in New York in November.