Estefans' story makes an infectious, earnest musical
NEW YORK >> If you aren't humming a Gloria Estefan hit when you leave the Marquis Theatre on Broadway, there may be something wrong. It might be time to consult a physician and the one that comes to mind is "Dr. Beat."
The infectious, earnest musical "On Your Feet!" initially stutters out the gate and ends somewhat awkwardly, but has a fun, percussive middle, even as it skates perilously close to melodrama. It's saved by its genuine heart — and a list of great tunes, ones that nicely make the transition from radio to stage.
The musical about Estefan and her husband, Emilio, is a love story that uses their hits like "Turn the Beat Around" and "Conga" to tell how the budding singer and producer met, battled for crossover success, handled interfamily squabbles and overcame a bus crash that nearly claimed Gloria's life.
Ana Villafane stars as Gloria, and it's uncanny how she sounds and moves like the real pop star. Josh Segarra plays Emilio and while his voice sometimes isn't as strong, his acting is fearsome. What they have onstage is pure chemistry.
"On Your Feet!" is a fine addition to the ranks of jukebox musicals. It resembles "Motown: The Musical" in its look at the struggles minority musicians face and "Beautiful" in the way it celebrates songwriting.
It's also the story of two immigrants who are fighting for their culture and music to be accepted. Segarra gets perhaps one of the loudest applauses when he tells a nervous record executive: "This is what an American looks like."
"Kinky Boots" director Jerry Mitchell keeps the action going with a fearless optimism. "Memphis" choreographer Sergio Trujillo mixes hectic group numbers with pizazz, including an improbable number that has everyone tapping in sandals.
Book writer Alexander Dinelaris has a knack for pulling everything down a notch when it seems to get too overblown.
There are some winning scenes, as when the couple first starts to have feelings for each other. The crowd around them melts, leaving only Villafane singing the tune "Anything For You" to Segarra.
The bus crash is handled quite understatedly, followed by Segarra singing a nifty "Don't Want to Lose You" and the lovely duet "If I Never Get to Tell You," an original song with lyrics by Gloria and music by the couple's daughter, Emily.
Perhaps the show's best moment is when the couple is trying to gain traction for their budding hit "Conga," and, in a zany sequence that harkens back to classic Broadway, they perform it at a bar mitzvah, a wedding and a Shriner's convention.
There are also some odd moments, as when Gloria is singing to her dying father who is clearly a puppet head. And a scene when fan letters come to life to cheer her up is a little self-serving.
But while the show may need a little more editing, "On Your Feet!" is charming. It's got a grandmother (Alma Cuervo) who almost steals the show, and a dancing boy (Eduardo Hernandez) who pretty much does.
It's taken far too long to have Latin rhythms — and a Latin cast — dominate a Broadway show, not just operate as comic asides or dance breaks. Even the usual turn-off-your-cellphone warning was welcome this time — it was partly in Spanish.
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