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On Your Feet!

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 5, 2015

On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio & Gloria Estefan. Book by Alexander Dinelaris. Featuring Music Produced and Recorded by Emilio & Gloria Estefan & Miami Sound Machine. Directed by Jerry Mitchell. Choreographed by Sergio Trujillo. Scenic design by David Rockwell. Costume design by ESosa. Lighting design by Kenneth Posner. Sound design by SCK Sound Design. Projection design by Darrel Maloney. Wig and hair design by Charles G. LaPointe. Orchestrations by Gloria Estefan, Emilio Estefan. Additional orchestrations by Jorge Casas, Clay Ostwald. Dance music arrangements and dance orchestrations by Oscar Hernández. Cast: Ana Villafañe, Josh Segarra, Alma Cuervo, Alexandria Suarez, Eduardo Hernandez, and Andréa Burns, Fabi Aguirre, Karmine Alers, David Baida, Natalie Caruncho, Henry Gainza, Linedy Genao, Carlos E. Gonzalez, Nina Lafarga, Omar Lopez-Cepero, Hector Maisonet, Marielys Molina, Doreen Montalvo, Genny Lis Padilla, Liz Ramos, Eliseo Roman, Luis Salgado, Jennifer Sanchez, Marcos Santana, Martin Solá, Brett Sturgis, Kevin Tellez, Eric Ulloa, Tanairi Sade Vazquez, Lee Zarrett.
Theatre: Marquis Theatre, 211 West 45th Street between Broadway and 46th Street
Tickets: Ticketmaster

Josh Segarra and Ana Villafañe
Photo by Matthew Murphy

Think you can resist any attempt at adrenaline a show lobs at you? Good luck with On Your Feet!, the new musical that just opened at the Marquis. At the end of the first act of this musical biography of Gloria and Emilio Estefan, respectively the performance and producing muscle behind Miami Sound Machine, the wave of excitement that's generated from the stage is enough to lift you out of your seat and send you dancing into the aisles. I mean that literally, by the way, as this jolt of energy comes by way of a little song called "Conga," which is determined to sweep you up in the Cuban-American-fusion enthusiasm that seeps from its every pore.

There's even a decent reason for such explosive festivities, too. Gloria and Emilio have been isolated from mainstream American success for years, thanks to agents and producers who've seen them as fodder only for the Latin markets. Now that they've hit the magic formula, a mix of "Latino with funk with pop all coming from the original conga rhythms," and no radio station will play it: It's too Cuban for Americans and too American for Cubans, they're told. But once they force it into unorthodox audiences' ears—at a bar mitzvah, at an Italian wedding, in a glitzy Las Vegas club act—everyone adores it. Where else, then, is there for it to go but into the house where we're watching this unfold?

You can't argue with the logic. Nor can you quibble with the specific choices made by librettist Alexander Dinelaris, choreographer Sergio Trujillo, and director Jerry Mitchell to bring it about. It's canny thinking that works with the story of Gloria and Emilio's rise to the top of American pop music, and it captures in distinctly theatrical terms the precise moment at which, for these two, everything changed. In other words, it accomplishes everything it needs to. This would, perhaps, mean a great deal more if it weren't the only time that On Your Feet! comes truly, unequivocally alive.

As it stands, this well-meaning, well-performed, and otherwise well-executed evening is more admirable than electric. Dinelaris (the Oscar-winning screenwriter of last year's Birdman) may have provided one of the better jukebox-musical or songwriter-bio books since Mamma Mia! reignited the form a decade and a half ago, but he hasn't successfully tapped into whatever qualities outside their music might have made the Estefans worth dramatizing in the first place. In fact, despite outstanding performances from Ana Villafañe and Josh Segarra as the pair, they both come across as mighty dull.

Ana Villafañe and Josh Segarra
Photo by Matthew Murphy

She's an unassuming girl studying psychology, he has a music group (the Miami Latin Boys) that's still struggling to hit it big. When he visits her home on a tip from a friend, he persuades her to ply her talent with him, and in short order they're on a one-way skyrocket to the top, professionally as well as professionally. Sure, they face some resistance; most of it comes from Gloria's mother (Andréa Burns), who doesn't see music as a worthwhile career path (in part because she had to give up her own career on account of the Cuban Revolution) and doesn't trust Emilio. But it's easily overcome, and once "Conga" hits... well, you can guess where things go from there.

As for the second act, it examines the (gentle) aftermath of reaching the superstardom threshold, from the negotiation of Gloria's $50 million contract ("Madonna doesn't have this kind of contract!") to her exhaustion on her world tour and, most significant, the 1990 bus accident that cripples her and threatens to end her career just when it's truly begun. Spoiler (as if it were needed): That doesn't happen.

What there's not is much in the way of genuine conflict. Emilio and Gloria's love grows gradually and does not waver at any point. Dinelaris doesn't put many major obstacles in the way of their ascent. When Gloria stands up to her mom about bringing her younger sister, Rebecca (Genny Lis Padilla), on tour, the confrontation has no teeth. And Gloria's entire post-accident recovery is encapsulated in a scene set in a gym with a personal trainer (played by Nina Lafarga) we've never seen before and are destined to never see again. It's almost as if you're not intended to take any of this seriously, which does not make for compelling theatre, especially when you already know how things turn out.

There should be much to learn from the Estefans and their work, which combines two cultures into a unique, unforgettable sound. And certainly the songs are well rendered, with the Estefans' original orchestrations (augmented by others from Jorge Casas, Clay Ostwald, and Oscar Hernández) scorchingly played by a band (under Lon Hoyt's musical direction) that includes actual members of Miami Sound Machine. And if they never land harder than they do in the show-closing megamix, the numbers are carefully (if not tightly) woven into the fabric of the tale, so you're never yanked too far out of the moment by the likes of "Here We Are," "Get On Your Feet," "If I Never Got to Tell You," and "Don't Wanna Lose You."

But Dinelaris just doesn't dig very deep. He's piled on the warmth, charm, and inspiration—this is by far the nicest musical in this genre I can remember seeing—but pursued no innovation. You crave something akin to what Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice did with their still-unsurpassed (if still not-that-good) book for Jersey Boys, which employed many teasing, surprising methods to explore how the Four Seasons developed their sound and popularity, or even the unpredictable nonstop thrust of something like Dreamgirls. Alas, there's nothing here that's unexpected, challenging, or even that different.

Mitchell's production does not help. It lacks liveliness and urgency, and depends too heavily on drab, lumbering moving panels from set designer David Rockwell; more color is provided by Darrel Maloney's projections, ESosa's costumes, and Kenneth Posner's lights, but the show looks like a budget-crunched affair that fails to unearth as much fun as it wants to. Only Trujillo scores a complete victory, delivering eye-popping, stage-filling dances that evoke the spicy thrills of time, place, and personality the music itself so readily encourages.

Villafañe and Segarra embody it beautifully, too, her with a sparkling intelligence that highlights Gloria's nimble vivacity, he with a slow-smolder manner suggesting he's forever two steps ahead of everyone. They have real chemistry, too, which adds much needed weight to their central romance, and leads you to believe they could be friends as easily as lovers. And both have excellent voices and rich, sharp physicality that ensure, even given the gifted dancing corps, they're the most interesting people onstage. Fine support comes from Burns (terrific, if sadly underused), Padilla, Alma Cuervo as Gloria's grandmother, Alexandria Suarez as a younger Gloria, and Eduardo Hernandez as the various young boys in the Estefans' lives (and who can pull off a few killer steps of his own).

All of that personal charisma, however, doesn't quite translate into something that puts On Your Feet! solidly on its feet outside of "Conga" and the cheer-eliciting megamix. Those sequences work because they're the times that the songs and the drama (such as it is) are most closely in sync. But much of this would be at least as effective (and probably more so) if the focus were more firmly on the music than on the Estefans. Dinelaris has made them out to be wonderful people, but just because their music is worth selling doesn't necessarily mean their story is worth telling.

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