On Your Feet joins its fellow juke box musicals Jersey Boys and Beautiful in the growing list of this new genre that delivers a full evening’s entertainment using pop hits of another era to tell a story of those who wrote or performed them when the world was younger. Gloria and Emilio Estefan certainly warrant such a tribute, for as husband and wife they have sold over 200 million recordings of songs she sang that they wrote together, they have received 26 Grammy Awards for their work, and their personal lives have been happy and fulfilling as well. There was a bad turn in their road of life, but it was an accident and all is once again well now.
Book writer Alexander Dinelaris (who wrote the film Birdman) joined the Estefans to dramatize the highlights of their very successful careers as well as their offstage romance. With the whirlwind production that Director Jerry Mitchell (Kinky Boots) has provided, with the exuberant choreography by Sergio Trujillo, and with the two sizzling performances by Ana Villafaňe and Josh Segarra as Gloria and Emilio, they’ve created a joyous whirlwind of a musical evening that should appeal to young and old.
I admit that I’d not heard their music, despite the wide acceptance of the recordings and the sold out personal appearances in world stadiums. I’d not known the work of ABBA either when I first caught Mamma Mia! during its early London run prior to Broadway, and I’d only rarely connected with Carole King’s music before getting to know it in Beautiful. But all of that material, plus the prodigious output of the Estefans have added up to long runs on Broadway as fans and newcomers like me have flocked to enjoy the results.
In addition to its grab bag of hits like “Conga,” “On Your Feet,” and “Anything For You,” there are some 25 other zippily staged and choreographed numbers that leave just enough time for Mr. Domelaris’ book to sketch in the Estefan story from birth to stardom to convalescence to triumphant return. It’s surprising and notable that he manages to make these characters come vividly alive with so little stage time. And there is one song that was written by the daughter Gloria and Emilio had after the period covered in the musical. It was “If I Never Got To Tell You” and it serves the story well when it is done late in the second act to celebrate Gloria’s recovery from the smash-up that almost killed her. But all of the musical material serves the show in remarkable fashion, and the lyrics too show enough craft and insight to elevate them from the banality of so much of pop music (which seems to be increasing in the years since this tale ends in the 1990s).
The superb cast helps a lot. Ana Villafane has the glamour, the voice, the body and the dancing chops to capture the real Gloria. Villafane does a great job and sells the material superbly.
Josh Segarra is her equal, loaded with sex appeal, but not a rooster who shows off a lot. He’s created a man who spots his love at first sight, and never wavers from his initial response.
Jerry Mitchell has kept the whole show moving fluidly and the meeting between Gloria and Emilio is reminiscent of the one between Tony and Maria in West Side Story. Mitchell has arranged the players so the chemistry is clear right up into the theatre’s balcony. In support, veteran Alma Cuervo is Consuelo, the grandmother that is such an important part of Gloria’s team. Alive, boisterous, traditional in the best sense, curious, non judgmental, and perfectly capable to gingerly kick up her heels when called upon.
But it is Andréa Burns who finally has a Broadway role in which she can show her full potential. She’s given star performances in supporting roles in In The Heights, The Nance, The Full Monty, and in the leading role off Broadway in Songs for a New World.
Streisand needed her Funny Girl, Bernadette Peters needed her Dame At Sea, Nina Arianda needed her Venus in Fur, Richard Kiley needed his Man of La Mancha, Barnard Hughes, a useful supporting player for decades, finally saw his name above the title when he accidentally read a script called Da and managed to get it on off/ off Broadway where it was picked up and moved. His name remained up there for the rest of his career.
Andrea Burns is one of those — a star just waiting for a starring role she can play in New York, for in On Your Feet she is playing Gloria’s mother (also named Gloria). She is a still glamorous 48 year-old mother when the story begins, but she is perfectly marvelous in a flashback sequence in which she was a star performer in her native Cuba twenty years earlier. She is also well-served by the brief scenes in the book, in which her reluctance to allow her daughter to pursue the dream she herself once had gives substance to the plot. Always playing for real, her transformation into an understanding woman (she had always acted out of love, but it was tough love) is very moving and beautifully performed in a duet with Emilio. She has it all — the figure, the smile, the voice, the ease in dancing, the talent to play nuance and complexity. She is a very important reason for the overall success of this delightful jukebox musical that sent me out into the night a good deal younger than when I entered two and a half hours earlier.
Go see On Your Feet! But for a really good time, be prepared to Conga up the aisle along with members of the cast. I didn’t do that, but it was great fun watching others in the audience dancing their way out into the brisk autumn night.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes and an intermission.
On Your Feet is playing at The Marquis Theatre – 46th Street between Broadway & 8th Avenue, in New York City. For tickets, go to the box office, call Ticketmaster at (877) 250-2929, or purchase them online.