'On Your Feet!': Theater Review

ON YOUR FEET! - Production Still 2 -Publicity-H 2018
Courtesy of Matthew Murphy
Samba y conga, si, si, si.

Led by Christie Prades and Mexican stage star Mauricio Martinez, the touring company of the Gloria and Emilio Estefan musical bio has them dancing in the aisles at the Hollywood Pantages.

For many, "Despacito" was the soundtrack of 2017, and while a crossover hit now may not seem like a big thing, back in 1985, when Gloria Estefan & Miami Sound Machine's "Conga" was released, it didn't just rock both North and South America, it was the first of its kind to rock the world. Estefan and her husband Emilio paved the way for future artists by fearlessly taking on executives at Sony Music and insisting on arrangements in their own Afro-Cuban style. Their story is told in the musical On Your Feet!, which ran for two years on Broadway and now arrives in Los Angeles with a powerhouse touring company headlined by Christie Prades and Mauricio Martinez.

Gloria (Prades) is just a Miami girl of 17 when Emilio (Martinez) comes looking for a singer for his band, The Miami Latin Boys. She sings "Anything for You" at her audition, impressing the band and tugging at Emilio's heartstrings. Two years later, they're busy playing dates and prepping a tour of South America.

As the first act winds to a close, the struggle behind Estefan's first big hit, "Conga," takes center stage. Sony exec Phil (a friendly but unctuous Devon Goffman) rejects the song because it's sung in English, which is no good for the Latin market where they've made their mark. He advises Emilio to change his name if he wants to crossover. In response, Emilio shouts, "This is what an American looks like," pointing to his own face, a line that elicited almost as much applause as the final curtain.

Emilio, of course, refuses to make changes, betting they can crossover by letting the people decide. Cue the montage of the band handing out records, playing bar mitzvahs and Italian weddings, and then hitting it big and closing out the first act with conga lines snaking up the aisles, right past the real-life Gloria and Emilio Estefan, who attended the premiere.

The second act hangs on the bus accident in 1990 that nearly left Gloria paralyzed, including a rehab montage, recovery and, yes, a guest spot on the 1991 American Music Awards. It's a thin narrative framework, but fit enough for hanging songs like "If I Never Got to Tell You" and "Coming Out of the Dark."

It's a little hard to believe Oscar winner Alexander Dinelaris (Birdman) wrote the book for On Your Feet!, but his perfunctory plotting serves its purpose and is well-served in return by director Jerry Mitchell, a two-time Tony winner for choreographing Legally Blonde and Kinky Boots. His innate timing and keen sense of rhythm artfully complement choreographer Sergio Trujillo's smooth samba steps.

As Gloria, newcomer Prades offers an infectiously endearing presence and a smooth soprano voice that warmly resonates in songs like "Here We Are." Having played the role dozens of times on Broadway as an understudy, she easily summons enough vitality to hold the spotlight in big numbers like "On Your Feet!," nimbly joining Trujillo's dancers and dodging scenic designer David Rockwell's sliding scrims with projections.

At the heart of the show is the relationship between Gloria and Emilio, who meet cute in the beginning and carry it all the way to becoming married partners running the family business. Mexico City's Martinez makes a stunning North American debut as Emilio. With credits like Beauty and the Beast, The Drowsy Chaperone and A View From the Bridge in his home country, he brings charismatic kookiness, warmth and romance to the role, and lends tender pathos to his solo, "Don't Wanna Lose You."

As charming as he is, he's no match for Debra Cardona's Consuela, Gloria's grandmother, an unyielding supporter and indispensable link to the past. Cardona's spoonful of sugar is tempered by Nancy Ticotin's dash of vinegar playing Gloria's mother, whose past tangle with show business is shown in flashback to a 1950s Havana nightclub where she performs the show-stopping tune "Mi Tierra." Ultimately, her own shattered dreams have left her wary for her daughter.

A celebration of the woman and her music, On Your Feet!'s success is best measured by its ability to transcend Estefan fans. You don't need to have grown up dancing to "Conga" or "Turn the Beat Around" to enjoy this good-spirited and vibrant musical. But if you did, then a better time can't be had. The tour continues after its Hollywood Pantages run, playing major cities through April next year, when it's scheduled to wrap in Fort Worth, Texas.

Venue: Hollywood Pantages Theater, Los Angeles
Cast: Christie Prades, Mauricio Martinez, Debra Cardona, Jason Martinez, Carlos Carreras, Ana-Sofia Rodriguez, Carmen Sanchez, Jordan Vergara, Nancy Ticotin, Anthony Alfaro, Michelle Alves, Jonathan Arana, Sizzo Arnedillo, Danny Burgos, Sarita Colon, Shadia Fairuz, Adriel Flete, Devon Goffman, Ilda Mason, Claudia Mulet, Eddie Noel, Marina Pires, Jeremey Adam Rey, Gabriel Reyes, Joseph Rivera, Maria Rodriguez, Shani Talmor, Claudia Yanez
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, Berni Yuman, Roy Furman, Terry Allen Kramer, Catherine Adler, Caiola Productions, Reg Grove, IPN/Albert Nocciolino, Marc David Levine, Eva Price, Iris Smith, Broadway Across America, Larry Hirschhorn/Double Gemini, Burnt Umber Productions/Pittsburgh CLO, Stella La Rue/Lawrence S. Toppall