Theater Review: ON YOUR FEET (National Tour)

by Lawrence Bommer on March 24, 2018

in Theater-Chicago,Theater-Regional,Tours

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DANCE DELIRIUM

As jukebox musicals go, On Your Feet! really earns its exclamation point. No question, the music alone, which won 26 Grammy Awards, would justify this 2015 tribute to the flashdance fervor of Gloria and Emilio Estefan and their Miami Sound Machine. Their irresistible Cuban-fusion street beat is more fun than we deserve. Two dozen numbers detonate magnificently across the Hollywood Pantages stage.

But their lives warrant a work too: Alexander Dinelaris’s efficient book chronicles the making of the music, the heritage it drew from and enlarged, and the adversity over which it soared. “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You” indeed.

Chronicling the birth of a new pulse in the pop heartbeat, from the 70s through Gloria’s wondrous comeback in 1991 at the American Music Awards, this 150-minute retrospective rouser is, like its title, anchored in dance — literally in the aisles as the first-act finale swells with the infectious “Conga.” (And there’s the now-obligatory “megamix” curtain call to swell a well-deserved standing ovation and bust an audience’s moves.)

Along the way to superstardom we meet the forces behind the phenom. There’s Gloria’s mother Gloria Fajardo (Nancy Ticotin), who fled Batista’s Cuba, never achieving the fame her daughter would. Resentful of fickle showbiz and the father who prevented her from becoming the Spanish voice for Shirley Temple, she wants Gloria to be a psychologist. From her Vietnam-veteran dad José (Jason Martinez), afflicted with MS, Gloria just gets unconditional gratitude. Tensile support comes from Gloria’s loyal sister Rebecca (Claudia Yanez) and, above all, from her ardent abuela Consuela Garcia (delightful Debra Cardona).

Then, of course, there’s her once and future Emilio (electric Mauricio Martinez), the consummate Latin lover/crooner with dreams to set on fire a young songwriter from Little Havana. Finally and formidably, Gloria (enthralling Christie Prades) is bursting to sing the tunes she hears in her head. She transforms Emilio’s Miami Latin Boys into a chart-busting sensation.

That means finding the right “Goldilocks” compromise between not too Spanish and not too English (“rice and beans plus hamburger”), then selling the rich mix to record producer Phil (Dev0n Goffman) who at first proclaims that no “cross-over” is possible. Somehow Gloria must also cope with her envious mother’s reluctance to accept Emilio as more than a user and her guilt-giving accusations that Gloria neglects the family.

It also means exhausting rehearsals from a perfectionist Emilio who wants everything “95% better,” a dogged promotional campaign in south Florida and beyond, then endless touring, including a world whirlwind that spreads the joy like manna. But the endless concerts also challenge the Estefans’ partnership/marriage and push their luck.

In the second act disaster happens when, during a snowstorm outside Syracuse, a truck hits the tour bus. Gloria, who breaks her back, may not walk again. Halted by this setback, the music-makers must now take stock of their souls (the searing duet “If I Never Got to Tell You” and his anguished “Don’t Want to Lose You Now”). In a lovely dream ballet, she reprises her life, then discovers from thousands of fan letters how much she’ll be missed if she can’t rally to recovery. She does, beautifully, in the redemptive closer “Coming Out of the Dark.” Though our story ends 27 years ago, and her career still flourishes, Jerry Mitchell’s generous staging feels complete.

Fresh and fabulous, thanks to music director Clay Ostwald and his ten-man band and choreographer Sergio Trujillo, hits like “1-2-3,” “Get On Your Feet,” “Mi Tierra,” and “Reach” could raise the dead and explode the living. The touring company are infallibly right for their roles, notes and steps.

photos by Matthew Murphy

On Your Feet
national tour
ends at Chicago’s Cadillac Palace Theatre April 8
for tickets, call 800.775.2000
or visit Broadway In Chicago

tour continues into 2019
for dates and cities, visit On Your Feet

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