Friday, April 06, 2018

Re-Do the Conga?: The Rhythm of 'On Your Feet' Still Gets Me, but Not So Gloria's-ly -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

On Your Feet: The Emilio & Gloria Estefan Musical
Cadillac Palace, Chicago
Thru April 8

On June 2, 2015, I saw the first public performance of On Your Feet!--then subtitled: The Story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan--in its Pre-Broadway Chicago run.

In my review--likely the first by anyone of the show, since I had seen what was technically a "Preview" performance as a Broadway in Chicago subscriber--I called it "the best jukebox musical since Jersey Boys."

I also said I expected "On Your Feet! to be quite successful in New York and well beyond."

The show--which I intimated should appeal to fans of the music of Gloria & Emilio Estefan and maybe even more so to "aficionados of musical theater with cohesive narratives, fluent pacing, strong performances"--wound up running on Broadway for nearly 2 years and has begun international productions along with its current U.S. Tour.

I did not see On Your Feet! subsequently in its initial Chicago run, or on Broadway, so I wasn't aware of any changes that were made by esteemed director Jerry Mitchell, yet while ongoing tinkering is the point of previews and out-of-town tryouts, in my review headline I had dubbed the very first known incarnation "Already a Sound Machine."

So I was fairly excited to see the musical--now subtitled The Emilio & Gloria Estefan Broadway Musical--back in Chicago, where I caught it at the Cadillac Palace on Wednesday night.

And while I still enjoyed it--and recommend it to those looking for a sprightly show--I can't say I was quite as enamored.

My memory isn't good enough to cite too many specifics about what may have changed about On Your Feet!--and I won't say this is explicitly why the show about the musical Estefans felt a little less "Gloria's"--but from reading my old review I do know some adjustments were made.

The show no longer opens with a full blast through "The Rhythm is Gonna Get You"--it's quite abridged, with nearly no vocals--nor is there early reference to Gloria's near fatal bus accident in 1990, which had formerly served as a narrative thread throughout the entire show.

Other than that, I don't know exactly what, if anything, is much different, though I think there were significant Act II variances.

I saw an understudy, Danny Burgos, for the regular touring Emilio (Mauricio Martinez), but he seemed solid if not quite electrifying.

And if not quite as good as Ana VillafaƱe--who originated the role of Gloria--Christie Prades is truly superlative and actually sounds more like the famed singer.

As Gloria's mom, grandma and sister, respectively, Nancy Ticotin, Debra Cardona and Claudia Yanez are demonstrably good.

And as Young Emilio (and a couple other children), Jordan Vergara is an outstanding dancer who nearly steals the stage.

So the talent on this tour--under the direction of Mitchell and choreographed by Sergio Trujillo--is quite estimable, including the on-stage musicians.

Songs like "Get On Your Feet," "Conga," and "Turn the Beat Around" remain electrifying, and On Your Feet! well uses many songs from the Estefans' time with Miami Sound Machine and Gloria's solo career.

Not all of these are sung by the Gloria character, and Burgos' take on "Don't Wanna Lose You" is a highlight, as is Ticotin's "If I Never Got to Tell You," written by the Estefans' daughter Emily.

What I had liked so much about On Your Feet! on my first encounter was that it was a "jukebox musical" that felt akin to a more traditional musical with universal themes and insights.

And it's not like this is a completely different show.

We still learn about Gloria's dad being a Vietnam vet--the Fajardo family had left Cuba during the Cuban Revolution, when she was just a toddler, and settled in Miami--who becomes badly injured, and we get to know her overbearing mom and sympathetic grandma (aka Consuelo). 

And as Emilio and Gloria meet, become musical collaborators, fall in love, marry and build their careers, there is still a big audience cheer when he exclaims to a record company jackass: 

"This is what an American looks like!"

The horrifying tour bus crash that left Gloria having to learn to walk again still factors into the latter part of On Your Feet!, even if not as intertwined throughout as it initially was. 

While I believe Act II is a bit different from what I don't quite recall, I won't spell out anything further, and Prades' grand delivery of "Coming Out of the Dark" is both beautiful and touching. 

Certainly, I realize it may be a bit unfair to be comparing this touring production of On Your Feet! to a version that likely was never officially locked in, and which has no real bearing to what others will see at the Cadillac Palace (or elsewhere on tour). 

But throughout, this felt like a @@@@ (out of 5) musical, and I'm probably just trying justify to myself why I was so enamored--bestowing @@@@1/2--to a show I first saw so early in its public gestation. 

Who knows? Maybe it's just a vague matter of perception, or perhaps I was particularly excited to see something brand new back in 2015.

And while the current performers are excellent, maybe the originals who took the show to Broadway were just a tad more kinetic. 

I did sense Act I was a bit slower-paced than I remembered, but otherwise I'm not sure what accounts for my not being quite so Gloria's-ly smitten. 

Nonetheless, this fine show should still get you On Your Feet!

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