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Chicago by John Olson

On Your Feet
Cadillac Palace Theatre


Josh Segarra and Ana Villafañe
I don't find it hard to believe that Emilio and Gloria Estefan are smart, warm and witty people, as they are portrayed in this bio-musical with a book by Birdman screenwriter Alexander Dinelaris. Their accomplishments in bringing Latin pop into the mainstream are remarkable, and certainly, Gloria's recovery from a near-fatal bus accident in 1990 is inspirational. It's just that, at least as presented in Dinelaris' book for On Your Feet, which is set to open on Broadway this fall, there's just not much drama in it, or any shading of character flaws that would make either Emilio or Gloria all the more remarkable for overcoming those flaws—learning, growing, any of those things that bring tension and ultimately, one hopes, catharsis to a play. Undoubtedly, many reviewers will note that the involvement of the Estefans as lead producers likely had a chilling effect on any writer's attempt to show shades of grey. True enough, Emilio and Gloria are shown here as decent people—Emilio's a pushy business manager to be sure, but never in an unreasonable way. Gloria, who shared in the caretaking of her father who contracted a debilitating disease while serving in the Vietnam War, ultimately rebels against her mother, but for completely justifiable reasons. Only toward the end does Gloria even have an argument with Emilio. They clash over her willingness to commit to a comeback performance date after the accident—and then she's in excruciating pain, for heaven's sake. Who can blame her for getting a little irritable?

So, maybe suspicions can be cast on the subjects/producers for the lack of flaws in the lead characters, but Dinelaris has to share in the blame for flaws in the script. He frames the story mostly as a flashback starting shortly after her bus accident, so when the story catches up to this starting point, there's no shock value. We knew it was coming and it's difficult to see the feelings the characters must have been experiencing at that time. Then, as her injuries become the major crisis of the story's last third, there's little tension because we know she recovered and resumed her wildly successful career. The middle section of the story concerns Gloria and Emilio's battles with their recording company, who won't support their ambitions to cross over into English-language songs. They then try to convince radio station programmers that their music is neither too Latin nor too Anglo, but we all know what's going to happen. When they succeed with "Conga," her first big crossover hit, there's no great catharsis, as we saw that coming too. Those who write biographies of the famous all have the challenge of making well known facts seem less inevitable as they are played out on stage or screen. The better ones accomplish this by giving more detail and emotion than we get in this "and then this happened" script.

Dinelaris leaves certain plot details fuzzy as well. An early scene showing Gloria's father in Vietnam is unclear as to who the character actually is (I at first thought it was Emilio). There are also some brief, confusing flashbacks to the aborted music career of Gloria's mother in pre-Castro Cuba and Emilio's separation from his parents as a young boy that are insufficiently developed.

The first act, ending with a full production number of "Conga," is mostly a standard-issue show business bio. The second act focuses on Gloria's estrangement from her mother (who, even after Gloria's enormous success, disapproves of her career and of Emilio) and the accident. The accident and the uncertainty of Gloria's survival brings Mama back to her daughter's side, setting up "Don't Wanna Lose You" as a ballad for the mother and Emilio, but the moment doesn't seem earned, as the script has shown no change or growth in the mother. Here and in other moments, Dinelaris fails to adequately use the songs as extensions of the dialogue, and frequently On Your Feet feels just like a second-tier jukebox musical. The Estefan songbook is used mostly diagetically, though, and in those settings—of concert performances primarily—the songs come off much better.

Estefan's high-energy songbook is performed with the style that made her such a major star. Ana Villafañe sounds enough like the original deal to satisfy, in a manner that's more of a tribute than an imitation and accompanied by an onstage band that is stunningly brassy. Josh Segarra as Emilio and Andréa Burns, playing Gloria's mother Gloria Fajardo, deliver on some big numbers as well. It's all colorful and lively staging, with Sergio Trujillo providing the Latin dance choreography, as well as a second act "dream ballet" when Gloria is sedated while in the hospital for her injuries. The dancing is all fun to watch, but it's not up to the levels of Trujillo's work on Jersey Boys or Memphis. Costume designer Emilio Sosa has provided sexy designs for the men and women of the attractive cast, in a Cuban-influenced palette of soft pastels he shares with scenic designer David Rockwell and lighting designer Kenneth Posner. Rockwell's designs are simpler, less fanciful than his usual work and rely heavily on the projections by Darrel Maloney.

Director Jerry Mitchell establishes an amiable tone, keeping his lead characters likeable as played charmingly by Villafañe and Segarra. Dinelaris gives the pair lots of funny quips (my favorite is a description of Swedish concertgoers as resembling "Q-Tips bobbing up and down") that show the Estefans as smart, grounded and self-aware. It's mother Gloria, though, with her disapproval of Emilio, resentment of her husband's illness and opposition to Gloria's career, who's the most interesting character in the show, and Burns plays her with nuance and heart.

Whether the blame falls on the multi-millionaire Estefans for putting such a bland biography on stage, on Dinelaris for failing to put more edginess or suspense on paper, or Mitchell for failing to find a way to turn this all into the sort of high-energy, feel-good musicals he made of Legally Blonde and Kinky Boots, On Your Feet is a surprisingly low-key affair.

On Your Feet will play the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 24 West Randolph, Chicago, through July 5th, 2015. For ticket information visit www.broadwayinchicago.com or call 800-775-2000. For more information on the production, visit onyourfeetmusical.com.


Photo: Matthew Murphy

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-- John Olson



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