'On Your Feet!': Theater Review

On Your Feet - H 2015
Courtesy of Matthew Murphy

This high-energy bio-musical charts the road of Gloria and Emilio Estefan to global success and then through misfortune to a triumphant return.

OK, so there's nothing quite like a conga line to conjure visions of tacky wedding receptions and drunken office holiday parties. But just try keeping the grin off your face when two massive human chains — of cast and audience members — flood the aisles of the Marquis Theatre right before intermission in On Your Feet! Charting the rise to international superstardom of Gloria Estefan, and her triumphant re-emergence after near-tragedy struck, this biographical musical is an infectious account of the lives and careers of the Latin music crossover sensation and her producer-musician husband Emilio Estefan. Already proving a solid crowdpleaser in previews. the show features a star-making lead performance from radiant newcomer Ana Villafane.

Like other recent behind-the-music Broadway shows, Beautiful and Motown, the book here by Alexander Dinelaris (an Oscar-winning co-screenwriter of Birdman) is hardly a model of robust dramatic construction. It's brisk and perfunctory rather than nuanced, and the protagonists' professional conflicts are almost non-existent — we know they went on following their mid-1980s breakthrough to sell an estimated 100 million records worldwide. But the story is packed with heart, above all in its tender depiction of the couple's sustaining love. And there's such genuine joy — plus a refreshing suggestion of modesty — in the telling of this Cuban-American success story that it transcends any shortage of social context. Political aspects might be limited to the occasional sweet homeland acknowledgment, but the show's arrival at a historic point in the renewal of diplomatic ties between Cuba and the U.S. makes its timing serendipitous.

Two decisive factors that boost On Your Feet! are the obvious authenticity of its personal investment — right down to the presence of five members of the Estefans' band, Miami Sound Machine, in the sizzling onstage orchestra — and the surprising discovery of how serviceably most of the songs fit being shoehorned into a narrative.

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Percussion- and horn-driven dance hits like "1-2-3," "Dr. Beat," "Rhythm is Gonna Get You" and the inescapable "Conga" serve as high-energy performance numbers, while the many ballads included fortify the show's binding depiction of marriage, family and the immigrant experience. Musical-theater purists will sniff, but audiences looking for entertainment with emotional uplift will get what they came for. Even at its most shameless — trotting out adorable pint-size dancing dynamo Eduardo Hernandez to pound the floor, or transforming the curtain calls into a megamix concert — it's impossible to deny the production's generosity of spirit. And besides, who's going to complain about having "Turn the Beat Around" slapped on at the end of the evening?

Director Jerry Mitchell's background in dance informs the production at every level. Working with choreographer Sergio Trujillo, he hustles the action along with an emphasis on sinuous, salsa-based movement, facilitated by the ease and adaptability of designer David Rockwell's key set element — tall panels of white, wooden window shutters that evoke both Havana and Miami. Esosa's eye-catching costumes also straddle two worlds, evolving from crisp whites and colorful ruffled skirts that twirl through establishing numbers to glitzy performance outfits later on. And Kenneth Posner's lighting isn't shy about amping up either the arena effect of concert interludes or the heavenly deliverance of the gospel-style climactic number, "Coming Out of the Dark."

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Dinelaris revisits the flight of Emilio Estefan (Josh Segarra) as a child from Cuba during the overthrow of the Batista regime. But the show's principal viewpoint is that of Gloria (Alexandria Suarez as a girl, and then Villafane from her late-teen years onward), whose family also fled Cuba to settle in Miami. Although little "Glorita" was perhaps too young to have vivid memories of home, the attachment is strengthened through her mother, also named Gloria (Andrea Burns), and her grandmother, Consuelo (Alma Cuervo). Gloria's father Jose (Eliseo Roman), seen mostly in memories or dreams, also has appealing moments, notably his stirring rendition of "When Someone Comes Into Your Life."

Cuervo bristles with warmth and humor as the stage abuela, instrumental in getting her talented granddaughter heard by Emilio and his band — at that point still called the Miami Latin Boys. And Burns is terrific as the prickly mother, who's not such a pushover. Her own youthful dreams were crushed when she left behind a singing career in Cuba, and sadness struck her marriage when her husband developed multiple sclerosis after returning from Vietnam. A flashback to the senior Gloria performing "Mi Tierra" in a 1950s Havana nightclub on the eve of the Cuban Revolution is one of the first-act high points, sung with real verve by Burns. (Songs do not adhere strictly to the Estefans' career chronology, but are inserted into the narrative where appropriate, and rearranged accordingly.)

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An eventual falling out between her mother and the increasingly independent younger Gloria over her determination to pursue a career in music provides one of the show's key emotional arcs.

By contrast, the hurdles on the road to success seem mapped out only to be instantly cleared in Dinelaris' thin book: The record company insists on sticking to the Spanish-language market, refusing to let them record in English? Tough negotiator Emilio says, "We'll do it on our own." "Conga" is too Latin for American radio and too American for Hispanic stations? The Estefans take it door to door, getting it played on beaches, at bar mitzvahs and weddings until it explodes. The label execs don't want to mess with the Miami Sound Machine brand by putting Gloria's name out front? Emilio makes them see reason. The moneymen balk at an unprecedented $50 million contract for a female artist? "Then I'd say you have yourself a problem," responds Emilio with unflappable cool.

While Segarra's characterization is somewhat trapped behind the thick Cuban accent, he's a very likeable presence, bringing the right mix of cojones and corazon to an entrepreneur who refuses to be marginalized because of his immigrant background. "You should look very closely at my face," he says during a difficult negotiation that prompts a cheer from the audience. "Because whether you know it or not… this is what an American looks like." Take that, Donald Trump!

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Even without the book's hasty foreshadowing that something bad is going to break the momentum, Estefan's fans will be bracing for the collision when a truck smacked into the band's tour bus in 1990. Gloria was critically injured, risking permanent paralysis. Segarra's performance gains in intensity in the aftermath, and the show's depiction of how the family pulled together at such a difficult time is quite affecting, its sentimentality entirely earned. Mitchell and Trujillo also handle the resulting nine-hour spinal surgery with tasteful restraint, creating a lovely dream ballet during which Gloria sings "Wrapped."

Given the exposure of Latin ballroom on shows like Dancing With the Stars, Trujillo's choreography admittedly strikes a lot of familiar poses, but there's a thrilling intimacy to the partnered dancing, in both exuberant and romantic modes. The Afro-Cuban rhythms, whether unadulterated or filtered through a broader pop idiom, give the show a seductive beat, and the athletic ensemble makes it all look easy as the men fling their partners up onto one shoulder or the women dip into a vertiginous sweep across the floor.

As for the star, her seeming effortlessness is also a distinguishing quality of the perfectly cast Villafane. She's a natural, not only bearing a more-than-passing resemblance to the young Gloria Estefan, but also producing a fine facsimile of the original's vocal power. Balancing softness with a feisty side, she provides a captivating human center to this enjoyable show, helping to elevate it above the more workmanlike aspects of its assembly.

Cast: Ana Villafane, Josh Segarra, Andrea Burns, Alma Cuervo, Alexandria Suarez, Eduardo Hernandez, David Baida, Henry Gainza, Linedy Genao, Carlos E. Gonzalez, Nina Lafarga, Omar Lopez-Cepero, Marielys Molina, Doreen Montalvo, Genny Lis Padilla, Liz Ramos, Eliseo Roman, Luis Salgado, Jennifer Sanchez, Marcos Santana, Brett Sturgis, Eric Ulloa, Tanairi Sade Vazquez, Lee Zarrett
Director: Jerry Mitchell
Book: Alexander Dinelaris
Music & lyrics: Emilio & Gloria Estefan & Miami Sound Machine
Set designer: David Rockwell
Costume designer: ESosa
Lighting designer: Kenneth Posner
Sound designer: SCK Sound Design
Projection designer: Darrel Maloney
Choreographer: Sergio Trujillo
Orchestrations: Gloria Estefan, Emilio Estefan
Music direction & arrangements: Lon Hoyt
Musical supervisor, vocal & dance arranger: Rob Berman
Dance music arrangements & dance orchestrations: Oscar Hernandez
Presented by James L. Nederlander, Estefan Enterprises, Bernie Yuman, Roy Furman, Terry Allen Kramer, Catherine Adler, Caiola Productions, REG-Grove, IPN/Albert Nocciolino, Stewart F. Lane/Bonnie Comley, Pittsburgh CLO, Eva Price, Iris Smith, Broadway Across America, Larry Hirschhorn/Double Gemini Productions, Marc David Levine/Burnt Umber Productions, Stella La Rue/Lawrence S. Toppall