Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Already a Sound Machine: First Performance of 'On Your Feet' Well-Earns a Gloria's Ovation -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

On Your Feet!
The Story of Emilio & Gloria Estefan
a Pre-Broadway World Premiere Musical
Oriental Theatre, Chicago
Thru July 5

With the caveat that I saw a preview performance, and the very first one at that--thus, no show photos are available to post--I can intrepidly intimate that On Your Feet is the best jukebox musical since Jersey Boys.

I have seen myriad examples of scripted musical theater productions that feature well-known songs of famous artists (or genres, eras, record labels, etc.) and have found that most approximate tribute concerts much more than first-rate Broadway musicals.

With the creative challenge seemingly being to establish enough of a narrative around the beloved songs to justify charging theater prices, while avoiding becoming too plot-laden to bore the fans mainly wanting to hear the cherished tunes, jukebox musicals typically take one of two paths.

They either tell a new story supported by the existing tunes--the best example being Mamma Mia, which used ABBA songs--or, more so, to varying degrees of depth, biographically document the artist whose catalog is being mined, such as the Four Seasons in Jersey Boys.

Although using old songs in new musicals dates back to George Gershwin and beyond, Mamma Mia was fun and original enough to feel like fresh theater even if the story was slight. And Jersey Boys rather brilliantly used the story of the Four Seasons and the individual members in a narrative that was both acutely biographical and allegorically universal.

But getting the balance right is clearly tricky, as most jukebox musicals usually engender one of two responses from me:

A) I loved the music but there was (practically) no story, so how was that a piece of "theater" any more entertaining than a good tribute band?


B) The story was so dumb and/or flimsy I would've preferred simply hearing a tribute band play the wonderful songs.

While On Your Feet is a biographical musical about Gloria and Emilio Estefan, and not quite as evocative as Jersey Boys because their tale isn't as overtly dramatic, it is the rare jukebox musical that actually works as bona-fide Broadway musical. 

As the show is already booked to hit the Great White Way in October, that's a good thing, and I expect On Your Feet to be quite successful in New York and well beyond. 

While fans of Gloria Estefan's hits, with the Miami Sound Machine and under her own name, will hear many of them in On Your Feet, this is a brand name star-inspired show that--as with Mamma Mia and Jersey Boys, yet few others--I would recommend to musical theater fans who lack any built-in affinity for the songbook. 

It's even possible, given the fine (if not quite Shakespearean) script penned by Alexander Dinelaris--who won an Oscar for co-writing Birdman--the vibrancy and seamless pacing that seem to be the stock in trade of director Jerry Mitchell (Legally Blonde, Kinky Boots) and the wonderful Latin-infused choreography by Sergio Trujillo, fans hoping primarily for an Estefan tribute concert may actually like On Your Feet a bit less than those more enamored by traditional Broadway musicals. 

Although a bit of pre-show Spotifamiliarization proved largely unnecessary as it reminded me that I already knew many of the hits that made Gloria Estefan a superstar in the '80s, I've never owned any of her music and wouldn't have at any point identified myself as a fan. 

But there's no denying the ear candy appeal of "Get on Your Feet," "Conga," "1-2-3," "Rhythm is Gonna Get You" and other once ubiquitous dance floor gems crafted by Gloria and Emilio, her husband, producer and musical collaborator. 

Thus On Your Feet smartly opens with a high-powered rendition of "Rhythm is Gonna Get You" while introducing Ana Villafañe as a wonderful (and near ringer for) Gloria--who was in the audience with Emilio--before the narrative notes the singer's devastating 1990 tour bus accident that serves as a thread throughout the show.

The music, on-stage band--including members of the Miami Sound Machine, if I understood Gloria correctly when she & Emilio took the stage at the crowd's fervent behest at night's end--colorful costuming and Trujillo's terrific choreography make On Your Feet an engaging delight from the get-go. It just feels good, even as it goes on to broach struggles experienced by the Estefans and their families.

Given my recognition of the inherent challenges cited above, I respect the choices Dinelaris and Mitchell made about how much backstory to tell, but especially in having attended a Broadway in Chicago Backstage TV taping chronicling the show's development and the Estefans' lives, I would have valued a bit more family history being worked into the show.

For example, although On Your Feet briefly depicts Gloria's father serving in Vietnam after having come to Miami from Cuba (with his wife, also named Gloria), it leaves out that he had been in the Cuban army, fled when Castro came to power, quickly joined the U.S. Army and served in the Bay of Pigs invasion before fighting in Vietnam, which caused subsequent emotional and physical hardships.

Knowing this within the show would only have amplified the power when Emilio--excellently embodied by Josh Segarra--shames a bigoted record company exec by exhorting, "This is what an American looks like!" which appreciably got a big hand from the first-night crowd.

I imagine the show's creatives may tinker with the biographical vs. musical balance throughout the preview period, but though the Estafans' story is one of talented immigrants struggling to become successful--and almost having their world shattered when Gloria was initially presumed dead after a snowstorm accident that fractured her spine--there is, relatively speaking, not that much drama to their lives. At least their public ones.

Ana Villafañe, who stars as Gloria Estefan
Besides the harrowing accident and Gloria's arduous recovery, the main angle of dramatic tension onstage is discord between the couple and Gloria's mom (played by Andréa Burns), and even the most acrimonious of those arguments ends with "I love you."

Emilio and Gloria have been a couple for nearly 40 years, and by all accounts--including what I've witnessed--seem to be nice, intelligent, appreciative and gracious people who became successful due to their talent and perseverance.

Gloria may not be the massive star she once was--and On Your Feet only covers ground through 1991--but there was no fall from grace, never any controversy that I'm aware of and she & Emilio seem properly regarded, rewarded and revered as musical and cultural icons.

So even in bringing a welcome Latin soundscape back to Broadway a few years after In the Heights, it seems that On Your Feet--at least based on the first preview--won't quite match the dramatic arc of that 2008 Tony Winner or other truly momentous and/or groundbreaking musical theater works.

But thanks to a truly top-tier team of theatrical professionals, this is a musical that works well beyond the well-known music.

Although the show is mostly chronologically biographical, director Mitchell smoothly employs flashbacks at several points, which work well even (or especially) without overt segues.

And while the songs are roughly presented according to their real-life timeline, and most principal ones sung by Villafañe as Gloria--the actress coincidentally attended the same Miami high school years after the singer--as with most quality musicals, an array of characters get vocal turns, including Emilio, Gloria's mom, dad and sister, the loving grandmother who encouraged her and a group of adoring fans.

Beyond the big hits--including "Here We Are," "Anything for You," "Don't Wanna Lose You Now" and "Coming Out of the Dark," plus those already mentioned--writer Dinelaris keenly mines deep cuts that were outside my familiarity, but which well-fit their scenes...and singers.

And one of the show's best, most poignant numbers is a new song, "If I Never Got to Tell You," written by the Estefans' daughter, Emily. (They also have a son, Nayib, who, per Gloria, was in attendance.)

Because he deserves mention--like Alma Cuervo, who plays Gloria's rather remarkable grandma--I'll also mention the inclusion of a crazy-good dancing kid named Eduardo Hernandez. He is phenomenal.

So whether you're a huge fan of the music of Gloria & Emilio Estefan or more so an aficionado of musical theater with cohesive narratives, fluent pacing, strong performances--both Villafañe and Segarra could well earn Tony noms next year--lively songs and great dancing, On Your Feet should prompt you to stand and cheer.

And probably even dance.

The rhythm is gonna get you, but perhaps just as importantly, it's the libretto, tone and overall production values that will--compared to most jukebox musicals--turn the beat around.

Discount tickets for certain performances should be available on HotTix and Goldstar, as well as upper balcony seats starting at $30 through the box office.


Ken said...


Thanks for your willingness to get "Off The Couch" and "On Your Feet". Enjoyed your review of an already by gone era.

Anonymous said...

We were there opening night. I agree with everything you said. We were not as much Estefan fans as Jerry Mitchell fans so we went not knowing much of their story. What a treat! It is a touching story where we laughed and cried. The music was so well placed and every character was a plus to the production. I cannot imagine anyone not enjoying it or leaving without feeling better than when they arrived!