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Review: Musical numbers save 'On Your Feet!' from itself
Three out of four stars
Check your cynicism at the door for “On Your Feet!,” the rags-to-riches musical about the life of pop star Gloria Estefan that arrived this week at the Fisher Theatre. The touring version of the audience-pleasing 2015 Broadway show has such exuberantly staged musical numbers that you can almost forget the dopey story line that comes between them.
Gloria Fajardo (Christie Prades) is still a teenager when hunky Emilio Estefan (Mauricio Martinez) recruits her for his Miami-based band. Despite the objections of her mother (Karmine Alers the night I went, Doreen Montalvo the rest of the run), Gloria starts to pick up gigs, then radio airplay and eventually sold-out shows around the world with Miami Sound Machine.
Things aren’t always easy. Music producers are happy with the sales numbers for Spanish-speaking audiences, but when Gloria and Emilio set out to produce a record in English, they are told that it will never sell.
History proved otherwise, of course. Miami Sound Machine had a string of crossover hits, including “Conga,” “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You,” and “Get On Your Feet.” The musical features all of them in extravagant production numbers aided by period-perfect '80s costumes (by Emilio Sosa), sizzling choreography (Sergio Trujillo) and a tight 12-piece band heavy on percussion, synthesizer and horns.
The slower numbers are a harder sell, and there are three or four too many of them. They aren’t helped by the touring production’s sometimes shoddy production values, which rely on clunky set pieces and projections.
A first-act highlight is a flashback scene featuring Gloria’s mother, who also had musical aspirations. Her soul-stirring mambo number, “Mi Tierra,” is performed on the eve of the family’s departure from Cuba in 1959, shortly before Fidel Castro's rise to power.
Emilio’s family also came from Cuba. A couple of ongoing gags involve Emilio’s Ricky Ricardo-style temper and his imperfect command of the English language. This leads to moments of genuine emotion as he struggles with prejudice in the country he moved to as a kid. An outburst to an especially patronizing record company exec (“This is what an American looks like!”) draws quick audience applause.
Unfortunately, the rest of the script is beyond cliched, which is surprising given that it comes from writer Alexander Dinelaris, who had such a handle on the entertainment industry in the Oscar-winning movie “Birdman.” There are two scenes with Gloria's sick father, a Vietnam war vet with multiple sclerosis. There's also drama involving her mother, who is estranged from her daughter.
The second half of the roughly 2½-hour show has the most problems, beginning with Gloria’s begging Emilio to let her slow down and continuing with the 1990 bus accident that nearly ended the singer's life. I felt as if I were watching in real time as Gloria recovered enough to perform “Coming Out of the Dark” at the American Music Awards a year later.
The show's biggest asset is the lead performance by the lithe, electrifying Prades, who was part of the original Broadway ensemble. Aside from holding a more than passing resemblance to the pop diva, she also captures Estefan’s onstage energy. When she is center stage, “On Your Feet!” parties like it's 1985.
Contact John Monaghan: email@example.com