On paper, it would seem that “On Your Feet!,” the latest touring musical at Wharton Center, was designed for a consumer like me, a Gen X-er who grew up during the era of Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine's domination of the Billboard Top 100 charts.
Now, Estefan has disposable income to spend on traveling Broadway musicals that reinforce how awesome the 80s were. While I freely admit I was dreading the experience, wary of trendy musicals based on loose storylines and developed around a body of music. Think "Mama Mia,” “Movin’ Out,” or “We Will Rock You,” for example.
The difference between this musical and many of its contemporaries, is the plotline revolves around the creation of the music itself. “On Your Feet!” is the true story of the formation and rise to fame of Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine. It is also a tale of enduring love, as the band was formed by Estefan’s first and only boyfriend, Emilio Estefan.
The couple meets in Miami in the late 70s. Gloria, (Christie Prades), is a shy but gifted singer-songwriter when Emilio, (Mauricio Martínez), approaches her to join his band, the Miami Latin Boys. Over the next few years, their love grows as the band rises in popularity.
Some minor points of tension arise between the band the record label, and later between Gloria and her mother, (Nancy Ticotin). The play includes the harrowing bus accident that nearly paralyzed Gloria, wrapping up with her 1991 return to performing publically.
Many contemporary musicals seem to be created as a way for busy and tired 40-to-50-somethings to experience music they like, without having to stand on a hard concrete floor several hours.
It's also a cheaper way to experience live music, because many concert tickets these days easily exceed the price of a touring musical. Aging Gen X-ers seem to be content with enjoying the music of their youth in formats other than the actual artists performing it themselves.
For that demographic, as well as musical fans in general, "On Your Feet!" is fulfilling and entertaining. The story is familiar and predictable, the plot revolves around the Estefans’ undying love for one another, for family and for music. The production delivers exactly what one expects: a predictable story arc, quality production values and a high energy finale.
While the dialogue and acting are often clunky, the cast are solid vocalists. It is critical, of course, to have an outstanding vocalist in the lead role, and Prades steps up to meet the challenge. Martínez, as Emilio, is not quite as strong a singer, until he shares vocals with Prades.
One disappointment is the affectation of the orchestra. The orchestra appears onstage several times, and on opening night I saw one percussionist smile a bit at a bandmate. Once.
Several of the band are members of Miami Sound Machine. Perhaps they’re just tired of playing the same songs for 30 years, or perhaps their stoicism is a directorial choice. If so, it's a misstep. With upbeat, infectious music like this, their faces and body language should reflect the joy and exuberance of playing the songs.
Fortunately, the skilled and tireless cast exudes energy and passion for the music, and, for the most part, take focus off the dour orchestra. Choreographer Sergio Trujillo earned his Tony nomination for his work on this production, in tandem with Emilio Sosa’s colorful costumes.
Emilio is played for laughs. He often borders on caricature, one halfway expects him to exclaim "Luuuucy!" a là Ricky Ricardo. Hints are made of the savvy Svengali reputation that the real Emilio developed in the industry, but this seems to be a much softened image.
Martinez’s finest moment comes during a confrontation with a record executive, when Emilio schools the conservative Caucasian about what makes a person an American. Whether or not the conflict occurred in real life is irrelevant, because the timely commentary elicits cheers and applause from the audience.
Which brings up the most valuable thing about “On Your Feet!,” that it exists at all. The play celebrates the outstanding contributions that the Estefans, first generation Cuban-Americans, made to the arts, not just in the United States, but across the globe. And it brings this message to middle America with a talented and dedicated multicultural, multinational cast.