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'On Your Feet!': EW stage review

Posted on

Matthew Murphy

We gave it a B+

Genre: Musical, Original; Starring: Ana Villafañe, Josh Segarra; Director: Jerry Mitchell; Music: Gloria Estefan, Emilio Estefan, and Miami Sound Machine; Book: Alexander Dinelaris; Opening Date: Nov. 5, 2015

The bad (and frankly a little surprising) news about On Your Feet, the new musical by, about, and featuring the songs of Gloria and Emilio Estefan, is that at no point through its nearly two-and-a-half-hour narrative you do you in fact get on your feet.

But the good news is that the moment its bows start, just after Gloria’s climatic and triumphant appearance, post-bus crash, on the 1991 American Music Awards, the on-stage band digs into a driving dance medley, and the crowd finally gets its chance to rise — and does, gleefully.

And the best news is that On Your Feet, which opened tonight at the Marquis Theatre on Broadway, is a play in which good news always far outweighs the bad — both in its story and in the production. It’s a syrupy, feel-good bio-musical, sure, but a near-perfectly executed one, with great songs and amazing dancing. As long promised, the rhythm does indeed get you.

The play opens at a Washington, D.C., concert, where Gloria (Ana Villafañe, fantastic in her Broadway debut) is bringing down the house. It quickly shifts backstage, where Emilio (Josh Segarra, an amazing dancer if less convincing actor) is lovingly but ambitiously driving Gloria to work hard, while also nudging their son, Nayib (Eduardo Hernandez, of America’s Got Talent fame), to get his homework done. Thus the tone is established: She’s a great talent; he’s a driven producer; theirs is a loving marriage. Also, they’re good parents.

But these first moments also establish that this is a slick, smooth, and infectious production. The band sounds great, Jerry Mitchell’s direction is unsurprisingly crisp and polished, and Sergio Trujillo’s exuberant, Latin-flavored choreography is ferociously fun to watch.

After that moment in Washington, things promptly flash back to Vietnam, 1966. Gloria’s dad, José, is away at war, but he takes solace from listening to tape recordings his young daughter sends him from home in Miami. Thus is further established that she is not just a great talent but also a devoted daughter.

As the story works its way forward through the first act, everything goes right for Gloria. She’s beautiful, beloved, kind, and generous. She cares for her younger sister and sick father. She is doted upon by her grandmother. She meets and falls in love with Emilio, who turns her into a star while always loving her back. Along the way, there’s a stern mom, a further flashback to the family’s flight from Cuba, and sometimes some ambiguity about where things are set or why people are dancing (although if Trujillo was choreographing you, you’d probably dance for no apparent reason, too), but that’s no matter. Life, consistently, is grand, and On Your Feet congas into intermission as “Conga” becomes Miami Sound Machine’s first hit.

It’s a well-built staging, but it’s Villafañe that brings it alive. She not only looks like Gloria, but she brings humanity to what could easily be a caricatured role. And she sings spectacularly. Watching her — hearing her — as Gloria discovers and harnesses the power of her talent provides a visceral thrill of discovery that lets you appreciate what it was must have been like to hear a young Gloria for the first time.

In the second act, things get even better for the Estefans. Gloria becomes a bigger star. Emilio gets her a huge contract. There’s some anti-Latin bias, but Emilio pushes through it. The only thing wrong is that Gloria’s mother, also named Gloria (Andréa Burns), resentful of her daughter’s talent and success, stops speaking to Gloria and Emilio. Which is where bad news once again becomes good news: There’s that 1990 bus crash, but here it serves mostly to reconnect devoted daughter and mother — and to provide the dramatic impetus for that show-’em-you-can-do-it American Music Awards finale.

It’s a hokey script, by Alexander Dinelaris, who wrote both the hit London musical The Bodyguard and the Oscar-winning screenplay for Birdman. But it has to be: Estefan has led a (mostly) charmed life, and in any case Estefan Enterprises, Inc., is a lead producer. And no one is coming to this show for deep psychological insight. They’re coming for the music, and to dance. And On Your Feet gets up and makes that happen. B+