Sunday, November 8, 2015

Broadway Review—‘On Your Feet’

On Your Feet!
Songs by Emilio & Gloria Estefan & Miami Sound Machine; book by Alexander Dinelaris
Choreographed by Sergio Trujillo; directed by Jerry Mitchell
Opened November 5, 2015
Marquis Theatre, 1535 Broadway, New York, NY

Ana Villafañe in On Your Feet! (photo: Matthew Murphy)

The jukebox musical began by marrying a slapdash story to a famous pop-song catalog, as in Mamma Mia (Abba) or Movin' Out (Billy Joel). A sub-genre soon arose, with songs commenting on the lives of the actual artists who wrote and/or performed them, like Jersey Boys (Four Seasons) and Beautiful (Carole King).

Continuing that trend, On Your Feet! tells the story of multi-million-selling Latina pop star Gloria Estefan, her husband/producer Emilio and their band Miami Sound Machine: it packs a lot of hits ("Conga" and "Rhythm Is Gonna Get You," for starters) into 2-1/2 hours, and a lot of cliches into Alexander Dinelaris's book—no surprise coming from a co-writer of the overrated movie Birdman.

The show tracks Gloria and Emilio's rise from the local Miami scene to dealing with record execs like the clueless mogul who scoffs at their attempt to crossover to English-language songs. Once they hit it big, there's no stopping them: at least until a 1990 bus accident knocked the grievously injured Gloria out of commission for 10 months, until she made her famous comeback singing "Coming Out of the Dark" on the following year's American Music Awards.

That comeback is the stirring climax of the musical, which otherwise is your basic rags-to-riches tale done with just enough tartness to avoid too much sentimentality. Even if the music becomes repetitive after awhile, those catchy hits just keep coming, with the appreciative audience treating the show like an actual Gloria Estefan concert. That illusion is helped immeasurably by one of the best Broadway debuts in recent memory.

Ana Villafañe, a remarkably talented actress whose boisterous singing voice booms out over the excellent onstage band, has created as memorable a characterization as Beautiful's Jessie Mueller did as Carole King. Too bad her costar John Segarra makes such an awkward Emilio; sure, there are the constant jokes about his heavily accented English, but Segarra makes Gloria's husband seem more robotic than simply uncomfortable.

Nearly matching Villafañe's exhilarating performance is Andrea Burns, who invests Gloria's anti-show biz mother with emotion, authenticity and authority. Burns also makes the most of her showstopping flashback, dancing and singing in a pre-Castro Cuban club: so much so that it makes one wish that she had a larger part in Gloria's onstage story.

With Sergio Trujillo's droll choreography and Jerry Mitchell's crafty direction combining to seamlessly weave the show's potentially clumsy flashbacks into the musical whole, On Your Feet!—despite some missteps—sticks the landing.

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