Choreographer Sergio Trujillo has created a dynamic dance number at the top of “On Your Feet: The Emilio & Gloria Estefan Broadway Musical,” reminding us that Miami’s Cuban-American culture remains a rich well.
The sequence is beautiful and infectious as Latin rhythms propel bodies with verve and style across the Orpheum Theatre stage, where director Jerry Mitchell’s Broadway tour opened Tuesday.
“On Your Feet” is a jukebox musical about a Cuban-American couple who broke barriers and “crossed over” into mainstream pop in the 1980s and ’90s with their hit-making “Conga” group, the Miami Sound Machine, selling more than 100 million records. But the show doesn’t live up to its potential.
That’s not a knock on the production, which definitely makes you want to get out of your seat. The flaw with this show, which ran for two years on Broadway, started at conception. Book-writer Alexander Dinelaris, who also wrote the stage adaptation of “The Bodyguard” and was part of a screenwriting team that won an Oscar for “Birdman,” has the wrong focus for this story.
He centers the show on a mother-daughter conflict similar to the one that animates the classic musical “Gypsy,” missing the opportunity to tell a more inspiring story of triumph concerning the 1990 auto accident that nearly claimed Gloria Estefan’s life. There were questions about whether she would ever walk again, but she made a surprising rally back to health.
The story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan is one of America. Their parents fled Cuba. They grew up in Florida, where he had an all-boy band and she studied psychology in college. Her mother, also named Gloria, had showbiz opportunities in her past; she was cast as the voice of Shirley Temple when the films were dubbed in Spanish. But those aspirations were thwarted by her father.
Gloria now puts down her own daughter’s desires, causing estrangement that suddenly changes with the auto accident.
With the Miami Sound Machine, the Estefans mostly delivered dance music and love songs such as “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You,” “Get on Your Feet” and a remake of “Turn the Beat Around.” Some of the songs have been rearranged for this show, whose syncopated music is conducted with flourish by Clay Ostwald, assistant music director of the Miami Sound Machine.
But that music doesn’t lend itself naturally to theater. At Tuesday’s opening, the cast tried but failed repeatedly to get the audience to clap along.
The show is beautifully designed, with David Rockwell’s sun-splashed pastel scenography and Emilio Sosa’s striking costumes lit enchantingly by Kenneth Posner.
The cast is also pretty good. Christie Prades has the phrasing and delivery of Estefan down pat, even if the material is limiting. In the lead male role of Emilio, Eddie Noel is much taller than the real character on which he’s based. Still, he had fairly good chemistry with Prades.
Nancy Ticotin brought a lot of pepper to Gloria’s mother, Gloria Fajardo, investing the character with some hurt.
“On Your Feet” is a pretty brisk show full of festive moments. And for Minnesotans in the throes of winter, it brings welcome heat.
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