On Your Feet!
Alexander Dinelaris (Book); Emilio & Gloria Estefan & Miami Sound Machine (Music & Lyrics)
Broadway San Jose
|Christie Prades & Adriel Flete|
As jukebox, biographical musicals have continued to find their way to the Great White Way and beyond -- often packing in adoring audiences for years even when critics might be at best lukewarm in initial reception – another arrived in November 2015 with the usual, true-to-life, rags-to-riches story with heartaches and tragedies scattered about for good measure. But On Your Feet! came with a beat, rhythm, and flair quite different from the likes of Jersey Boys, Beautiful, or Motown: The Musical. With a book by Academy and Golden Globe winner Alexander Dinelaris, On Your Feet! features both the Cuban-beat music and the Cuba-laced, life stories of Emilio and Gloria Estefan. As the now-touring show arrives at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts as part of Broadway San Jose’s current season (having just completed a month’s stay at SHN in San Francisco), the walls of the vast arena themselves can hardly not shake and sway as the Latin music blasts its way into every corner. And as toes tap, fingers snap, and heads with huge smiles nod to the beats, a story unfolds how an aspiring psychologist meets a small-time, Miami bandleader – both of Cuban heritage – to become together one of the hottest, most loved, most awarded musical phenomena ever to hit the global stage.
As soon as dancers and bongo/drum players fill the stage in the night’s opening number (“Rhythm is Gonna Get You”), evidence begins quickly to build that the top strengths of this musical lie in the choreography designed by Sergio Trujillo and in the music as played by a percussion-and-brass rich, on-stage orchestra -- the latter directed by Clay Ostwald (one of several members in the orchestra from the multiple Grammy Award-winning Miami Sound Machine). Number after number throughout the show features both principals and ensemble members in Latin-themed dances where arms, legs, and entire bodies move at a speed and with such exacting coordination to wow the audience. When combined with the myriad of colors, fabrics, and styles of Latin costumes designed by Emilio Sosa, the stage time and again becomes a twirling, undulating, rising/falling sea of swiveling hips, turning heads, and clapping hands where skirts fly, shoes stomp, and hats/scarves fly and flutter. And all the time, the orchestrations of the Estafans (with additional ones by Clay Ostwald and Jorge Casas) are played in perfect-sounding blends by this set of outstanding musicians.
The dance-club hits also leave their marks as perennial favorites like “1-2-3,” “Conga,” and “Get on Your Feet” give a chance for both singers and dancers to flout their stuff in heart-racing fashion. At the same time, ballads that swoon and swirl beautifully permeate the air (“I See You Smile,” “Here We Are,” “Don’t Wanna Lose You”) to balance the more furious and frenzied with often closely harmonized odes of love and hope. And along the way, we learn a story that borders precariously between predictably familiar and uniquely interesting, between genuinely inspiring and absolutely sappy. At any one moment, the scale may tilt one way or the other – according to both the book’s strengths and faults and to the disposition of the particular, listening audience member.
|Christie Prades & Company|
Christie Prades sings the iconic numbers of Gloria Estefan with a voice clear and appealing as well as alerting and exciting while often sounding a mixture of Cuban Latin and Nashville country. This latter is especially true when she renders slower ballads with the kinds of vocal slides and dips one often associates with country stars. Her Gloria is at her best when she duets with others like her sister Rebecca (the rich-voiced Claudia Yanez) in “Anything for You” or during a dream (“When Someone Comes into Your Life”) with the younger version of her father, José (Eddie Noel, who has one of the night’s best voices with gorgeous tenor notes that float effortlessly in to heavenly heights).
Pairing with Christie Prades’ Gloria is Ektor Rivera as Emilio, who too brings a voice both sweet and strong. From the first time Gloria and Emilio meet as his band’s practice, his Emilio has the look of love in his sparkling eyes and in his ever-present grin. Gloria is more the reluctant to give him any encouragement and is only at the band rehearsal to sing one number at the insistence of her Grandmother Consuelo (a continual, key delight whose of the evening whose personality is contagiously likeable as played by Alma Cuervo). But that one number that Gloria sings (“Anything for You”) immediately captures both Emilio’s heart and formulates his dreams of where he can take her musically; and the eventually meteoric rise in fame and fortune for the two begins it slow rise.
Even though their music soon has them selling out crowds on Latin stages both in Miami and abroad, Emilio and Gloria desire to “cross-over” with English-lyric songs in order to hit a broader audience. This proves not to be that easy, as told in one of the night’s most rousing numbers, “Conga,” where they bring their line-dancing, English-lyric number to a bar mitzvah, an Italian wedding, and a Shriner’s convention in Vegas before finally convincing a record-label executive Phil (Devon Goffman) that the conga lines of young and old non-Latinos are just the beginning to new heights for their joint fortunes. In the meantime, we as audience are entertained by Italian bridesmaids, rowdy Shriners, and a bar mitzvah boy named Jeremy (on this night, Jeanpaul Medina Solano) who sends the audience reeling in wild applause as his tiny legs spin faster than the blades on an electric mixer.
Gloria finally gives in to the love approaches of Emilio as the two cement their love in “Here We Are,” surprising him and herself as she finds kissing him is more fun than she perhaps had expected. The one person who is not excited about this union is the demanding, ever-serious mother of Gloria, Gloria Fajardo. Nancy Ticotin comes near stopping the show when during a flashback to Gloria Fajardo’s earlier life in Cuba places her onstage as a nightclub star singing in a voice that is the night’s most powerful (“Mi Tierra”) – a night that was her last in the spotlight before escaping the Castro’s revolution to come to the U.S. Ms. Ticotin not only is one of this show’s best singers, her portrayal of the journey and transformation Gloria’s mother undergoes is one of the best-acted characterizations of the evening.
The story of Gloria Estefan is well engraved in the hearts of her millions of fans worldwide – most of whom know all too well the tragedy that struck on a snowy night during a bus ride to a Saratoga, New York concert. The resulting broken spine and her noble fight against all odds to be someday again in the starring spotlight is much of this musical’s second act. It is this half of the show that tends to bog down at times and to come too close to being soap-opera-like. But if one is willing to let the overly sentimental, emotion-laden aspects just pass by without too much criticism, there are moments to relish and even perhaps a tear or two to shed –especially when fans of Gloria’s begin sending letters by the thousands to thank her and to wish her a full recovery. The company members who step forward to sing the wishes of those letters in “Reach” individually and collectively soar to impressive heights in their one chance of the evening to shine vocally.
On Your Feet! does not break a lot of new ground for American musicals and is not in the same category as some other, more stellar jukebox musicals like Jersey Boys; but at the same time, there are many more of the popular, current genre that are not nearly as good as is this story of the Estefans. Especially for fans of Gloria and Emilio – and there is a world full of them -- On Your Feet! is a sure bet to please with this extraordinarily talented cast and eye-popping touring production now hosted by Broadway San Jose.
Rating: 3.5 E
On Your Feet! continues through October 14, 2018 at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts as part of Broadway San Jose, 255 South Almaden Boulevard, San Jose. Tickets are available online at http://broadwaysanjose.com.
Photo by Matthew Murphy