On Your Feet!

on your feetI think there is a crucial plot point missing from each of the shows in the recent rash of biographical jukebox musicals adapting the stories of iconic recording artists for the stage. Nowadays, these shows come in many varieties: long-running hits (Jersey Boys), newly-minted hits (Summer: The Donna Summer Musical), and probable hits in the making (The Cher Show).

These Broadway biopics are an industry unto themselves. While it’s true that they are sometimes shunned by the Tony Awards nominating committee, check your DVR for a hint of how the ratings-hungry producers of the Tony Awards telecast feel about them.

This is the element of these rags to riches stories that I crave to have dramatized. Luckily, On Your Feet!: The Story of Emilio & Gloria Estefan does the best job of any of these musicals in involving its subjects in the once-thought-to-be improbability turned profound profitability. While it only occurs a few times over the course of this show’s somewhat bloated 150-minute runtime, when it does, it’s magic.

Christie Prades as Gloria Estefan and company

Christie Prades as Gloria Estefan and company

I had to brace myself on the armrests to keep from literally getting on my feet whenever the larger and louder than life orchestra—featuring five members of the real Miami Sound Machine—took center stage to jam on Estefan-penned classics like “Turn the Beat Around” and “Rhythm is Gonna Get You”.

These exhilarating moments and slick direction by Jerry Mitchell (Kinky Boots) can’t entirely lighten the load of the heavy-handedness with which the show wants to draw a line connecting the ugly prejudice the Estefans experienced on their way up the Billboard charts to the ugly prejudice immigrants experience in America today. However, they make you appreciate the tricky tonal balancing act of distilling a whole life in just one evening.

Although the moment when Gloria decides to perform for the first time following her spinal surgery can read more saccharine than triumphant, the scenes in the hospital and rehab center immediately following her tragic 1990 tour bus accident are genuinely gripping.

Adriel Flete and Mauricio Martinez as Emilio Estefan and company

Adriel Flete and Mauricio Martinez as Emilio Estefan and company

The range of reactions from my audience (from cheers to sobs) proves that, whether Gloria and Emilio appear as disembodied voices in a playful pre-recorded curtain speech or their passionate spirits are embodied by terrific triple threats like Christie Prades and Mauricio Martínez,  they still have legions of devoted fans.

When it comes to Pittsburgh, this can be attributed to the couple’s status as global music moguls and the fact that On Your Feet! was originally co-produced on Broadway by Pittsburgh CLO. Despite the misfortune of opening in the same season as Hamilton, On Your Feet! played a respectable 746 performances on Broadway before embarking on a US tour. This stop high kicks off CLO’s red-hot 72nd annual summer season.

I was not using a cliche when I classified On Your Feet! as a rags to riches story. The first scene shows young Cuban immigrant Gloria (Ana-Sofia Rodriguez) in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami actually doing laundry and making music with her neighbors, much to the chagrin of her disapproving namesake/mother. In one of the show’s many authentically thrilling salsa dance sequences choreographed by Tony nominee Sergio Trujillo and flawlessly executed by the inhumanly gifted ensemble, we meet a teenage Gloria whose sense of responsibility to her education, ailing father (Jason Martinez), and younger sister (Claudia Yanez) has mostly overshadowed her passion for songwriting.

Enter a swaggering, short short-wearing Emilio who visits Gloria at her home after hearing around town about her musical talents. Thanks to the meddling of her kind-hearted abuela (her grandmother played by a delightful Debra Cardona), Gloria ends up blowing everyone away with an original song of hers, “Anything for You”. And the rest, as we’re shown, is history.

If Gloria and Emilio’s legacy weighs heavily on the shoulders of Ms. Prades and Mr. Martínez, it’s impossible to tell because their performances are so uplifting. They play the highs and lows of the couple’s love story and career trajectory so convincingly that you’ll find yourself doubting the outcome of a story you may already know.

Joseph Rivera, Adriel Flete, Jeremey Adam Rey, Nancy Ticotin and Gloria Fajardo and Hector Maisonet

Joseph Rivera, Adriel Flete, Jeremey Adam Rey, Nancy Ticotin and Gloria Fajardo and Hector Maisonet

Doreen Montalvo (as Gloria’s mother) and Carlos Carreras (in a trio of roles including Gloria and Emilio’s young son Nayib, alternately played by Jordan Vergara) round out the family unit by delivering some of the evening’s most electrifying musical moments in the flashback showstopper “Mi Tierra” and the literally showstopping megamix finale, respectively.

When the members of Gloria’s family come out in Emilio Sosa’s increasingly more bedazzled costumes and lend their voices to a medley including “Conga” and the show’s title song, it beautifully underscores the way that they and their relationships with her inspired music continue to bring joy to millions of people. Coming to this realization would have caused me to lose my rhythm if not for this ebullient cast’s pitch-perfect dancing and singing.

As a show that is equal parts Miami, sound, and yes, machine, On Your Feet! is like a well-timed confetti cannon, a pure blast.

On Your Feet! plays at the Benedum Center through June 17th. For tickets and more information, click here.

Photos by Matthew Murphy


Categories: Archived Reviews

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