by Laura Grimmer
To be honest, I was astonished at the sheer number of Gloria Estefan songs I not only knew, but knew well enough to heartily sing along. Which made me just another member of the crowd at a recent production of On Your Feet! now playing at Broadway’s Marquis Theatre.
And to be sure, the crowd is a friendly, lively and easy-going group there to enjoy a night of pop hits, over-simplified love and family relationship stories and melodramatic recoveries from horrific bus accidents. And yes, it’s a good time.
Directed by Jerry Mitchell (a two-time Tony Award winner as a choreographer, most recently for Kinky Boots), On Your Feet is the dramatized life story of Gloria née Fajardo, whose parents left Cuba when Castro came to power and settled in Miami, and Emilio Estefan, the Latin music impresario who discovered her and managed the meteoric, cross-over success of their band, Miami Sound Machine. (Gloria and Emilio share music, lyric and orchestration credit for the show.)
Broadway newcomer Ana Villafañe is a knockout as Gloria, with her looks and the timbre of her voice evoking the superstar while bringing energy, passion and depth to the by-the-numbers book by Alexander Dinelaris, an Academy Award-winner for the screenplay of Birdman.
Opening with a snippet of Rhythm is Gonna Get You from Gloria in concert, the first act lays out the Estefans’ never-stop work ethic and tells the back story of Gloria’s father (Eliseo Roman), a one-time Cuban policeman and Batista family bodyguard who served as a U.S. soldier in Vietnam before falling ill with multiple sclerosis. Gloria’s abuelo (grandmother, played by Alma Cuervo) plays the role of both historian to explain things when needed to further the action and matchmaker between Gloria and Emilio (a quite dashing Josh Segarra), then the band leader of the Miami Latin Boys.
“Anything for You” is Gloria’s performance piece to audition for Emilio’s band, 1-2-3 (“1-2-3-4, Come on, baby, say you love me”) is the vehicle for showcasing Gloria’s rise from shy, reluctant singer to superstar-on-the rise, and “I See Your Smile” illustrates the young couple’s evolving emotional connection.
There’s a somewhat predictable mother-daughter conflict as Gloria’s career takes off and her mother, also named Gloria and played beautifully by Andréa Burns, relives her past glory as a performer in Cuba before her father (and presumably, the revolution) killed her dreams.
While the music had the audience bobbing up and down throughout the night, one of the best applause-inducing moments of the play came when Emilio is trying to convince record executive Phil (Lee Zarrett) that Miami Sound Machine’s music, already a hit in the Latin market, can be a bonafide cross-over hit with an album in English.
“While you’re dominating the Latin markets, the next single is gonna be in Spanish!” Phil says. “It’s that simple. You really wanna cross over? Fine. Get rid of the horns, simplify the percussion, change your name. Then we’ll talk.”
“When I first got to Miami,” Emilio says, seething, “there was a sign in front of the apartment building next to ours. It said, ‘No Pets. No Cubans.’ Change my name? It’s not my name to change. It’s my father’s name. It was my grandfather’s name. My grandfather, who we left behind in Cuba to come here and build a new life. Now, for 15 years I’ve worked my ass off and paid my taxes. So, I’m not sure where you think I live, but this is my home. And you should look very closely at my face, because whether you know it or not, this is what an American looks like.”
Needless to say, Conga went on to blow up the Billboard chart, and eventually Gloria Estefan went on to make 38 hits and win seven Grammy Awards.
The second half of On Your Feet is dominated by the March 1990 bus accident that resulted in a traumatic spine injury and more than a year of grueling rehabilitation for Gloria, culminating in her triumphant return to the stage with the Billboard number one hit, “Coming Out of the Dark.”
Sergio Trujillo (Jersey Boys, Memphis) choreographed the Cubano dance-driven numbers (and there are many). Smoothly performed by the lithesome company with terrific energy, I wasn’t the only audience member whose shoulders were twitching to shimmy during the dance segments.
David Rockwell’s set design (On the Twentieth Century, Kinky Boots) makes clean, efficient use of revolving panels to carry the story from a Miami Sound Machine concert to Gloria’s Miami childhood home, to a hospital and to Gloria’s triumphant return to the stage. Lighting by Kenneth Posner (Kinky Boots, Finding Neverland) provides a needed assist to elevate the drama in the at-times sparse story.
The costumes, by Esosa (Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, Motown) capture the classical Miami look and feel up through the 1980s and 90s fashion so intrinsic to the MTV generation.
In the genre of so-called jukebox musicals based on singers and/or popular songs (Beautiful, Jersey Boys, Mamma Mia), On Your Feet fares well as a cohesive blend of story-telling via this singer’s pantheon of hits.
On Your Feet!
46th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Open ended run.
A former reporter for the Associated Press, Laura Grimmer is an avid theatergoer with an admittedly bourgeois fear of seeing someone naked on stage. Follow her on Twitter at @lauragrimmer.