by MIKE CHAIKEN
Jukebox musicals—stage shows that use pop “greatest hits” not intended for theater to drive the plot—typically have a built in audience.
If you’re a fan of Billy Joel, you’ll like “Moving Out.” If you’re a fan of Motown, you’ll like “The Motown Show.” If you’re a fan of Carole King, you’ll like “Beautiful.” If you’re a fan of ABBA, you’ll like “Mamma Mia!”
And so on and so on.
So, “On Your Feet! The Emilio and Gloria Estefan Broadway Musical” has the right idea from a commercial point of view. If you’re a fan of Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine,” you’ll recognize and love the live performances of “Rhythm Is Going to Get You,” “Dr. Beat,” “Coming Out of the Dark,” “Turn the Beat Around,” etc.
However, this show is interesting that despite the inclusion of hits, the Estefans have opted to move beyond the hits, and have composed music that is intended to help tell the story—opting not jury rig the plot to fit the songs.
In one sense this is a smart move by the Estefans. As big as Miami Sound Machine was in the 1980s and 1990s, their presence on the charts has subsided considerably. And, face it, as catchy and rousing the songs created by the Estefans were, they haven’t burrowed as deep in the public consciousness as Motown or ABBA.
So the “On Your Feet” really relies on the story rather than the music to keep your attention. And in this regard, it works. It isn’t afraid to touch upon some serious topics—the effect the Vietnam War had on returning veterans, the exodus of Cubans to America following the rise of Fidel Castro, and how the Latin community was often dismissed by white America.
However, the show is smart enough that it doesn’t trivialize or dwell on these issues. They are necessary to inform the audience as to how the Estefans were shaped by their situation. But this is a story about the success of a pop music power couple.
Ultimately, “On Your Feet!” is a good time.
And we’re fortunate that the cast—from the leads to the ensemble—is top notch. There are great singers. There are great dancers (choreographed by Sergio Trujilla). And the live band– directed by Clay Ostwald– is superb.
The show’s success clearly is driven by its two leads on this national tour: Christie Prades as Gloria and Mauricio Martinez as Emilio.
Both, first of all, are superb singers. When they sing the ballads, the sound of their voices tug at the heart strings and bring tears to your eyes.
And Prades, when she has to tackle such exuberant numbers as “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You,” brings a smile to everyone’s face with her energy.
Martinez is also surprise. He is “ballsy” when he needs to be. He is sweet when necessary as well. And he has the sweetest tenor that pulls at the heart strings.
Both Prades and Martinez have done a superb job of finding the nuances of their characters. The show is smart enough to depict the Estefans as people who aren’t much different than their fans—they just happen to sing pop music. Prades and Martinez take the characters beyond caricature and make them real.
Two other key actors in the tale are Doreen Montalvo, who is Gloria’s mother, and Debra Cardona, who is Gloria’s grandmother Consuelo. They provide a good deal of emotional heft—on all sides of the spectrum– to the tale. Montalvo is full of love for her family but also is filled with resentment due to a life that didn’t fill its potential due to events beyond her control. And Cardona was a hoot as a woman who remembers mistakes made and dreams deferred– and who is intent on making sure Gloria doesn’t miss out on her dream.
“On Your Feet!” hardly is as heavy as Green Day’s “American Idiot,” another jukebox musical. And it doesn’t try for artistic significance like “Moving Out.”
But, like “Mamma Mia!” “On Your Feet!” is about making the audience tap its face, smile, and have a good time.
In this regard, and due to a great cast, “On Your Feet!” is a great opportunity to lift up your spirits.
I give “On Your Feet!” 3 ½ stars out of 4.