Part Broadway Bio, part Jukebox Broadway, part ethnic crossover Broadway, “On Your Feet” is the story of Cuban American pop star Gloria Estefan, who married her svengali Emilio Estefan, and together invented Latin-American pop: add over textured drums, synth funk, Cuban congas to American dance and mix. This happened in the 80s for Estefan and Emilio’s Miami Sound Machine, and even with reggaeton, it is the recipe today. Perfection on the dance numbers, it sounds like a rat being drowned by a cat on the ballads. Still, it made Gloria a superstar.
So at the end of the first act of “On Your Feet” it all pays off in spades with a colorful, flag waving, sincerely over the top “Conga” – Miami Sound Machine’s crossover hit becomes American’s and the world’s Sound Machine. They were looking for a sound to push the band over the top and they found it. And so does “On Your Feet” with Ana Villafane’s Gloria, a tangle of curly tresses, loud colors, and sure spitfire Latina attitude leading husband Emilio ( Josh Segarra -with a lousy accent and a strange croak of a singing voice) to the sort of show stopper we paid our money for.
“On Your Feet” takes you from eight year old Gloria sending tapes of her singing to her father in Vietnam during the war, to constant power struggles with her Mom (a badly abused Gloria Fajardo, in a thankless role) that, with her father ill with multiple sclerosis and jealous of Gloria’s success, will break up the family.
If that is all family business as usual, the business portion is far less than illuminating, though Emilio comparing their Swedish fans to “a room full of Q-Tips bouncing all over the place.” is funny enough. Certainly, Emilio and Gloria changed Latin American pop forever, and the golden years, the 90s, of Latin-American pop, derive from the duo as much as from Celia Cruz or Tino Puentes.On stage, it all seems to happen in a rush of sound, it is alchemy rather than process. In other words, it isn’t serious. It is subtext that works as a placeholder to the true crux of the show: the bus accident that paralyzed Gloria in 1990, a storyline arch which is really just waiting for her because, in purely dramatic senses, none of this is really dramatic except for the accident. The book, written by “Birdman” co-author Alexander Dinelaris is stilted, it doesn’t build well and the climax, the accident and aftermath, are not enough to convince you you’ve seen a great musical. But they have to. There is nothing else ever in doubt: hell, on Planet Estefan even racism doesn’t exist.
Even so, “Conga” and “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You” are both Broadway at its best and even at its worst, “On Your Feet” is a heartfelt, good time. It might not be history or historic, but it has a soul of pure (Latin-American) pop.
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