Without question, it’s the rhythm that’s gonna get you in “On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan,” the new Broadway-bound musical that spins the story of the early years of that deeply Cuban-rooted but all-American couple’s remarkable life together.
The show, which opened Wednesday night in its Chicago “tryout” at the Oriental Theatre, begins, as of course it must, with a blast of red and gold arena lights followed by the irresistible sound of Cuban rhythms pounded out on percussion and brass courtesy of an onstage orchestra that contains a number of Miami Sound Machine veterans. Within seconds there also is the gyroscopic swirl of wildly wound-up dancers moving their hips as if propelled by a hurricane gale. And it is not giving too much away to say that by intermission, the audience is joining the dancers as they move up the aisles of the theater to the sound of the Estefans’ megahit, “Conga,” released back in 1985.
‘ON YOUR FEET! THE STORY OF EMILIO AND GLORIA ESTEFAN’
When: Through July 5
Where: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph
Tickets: $33 – $100
Info: (800) 775-2000; www. BroadwayInChicago.com
Run time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission
The music (and there are plenty of ballads as well as dance numbers in the show) is unquestionably infectious. The dancing (cheers for choreographer Sergio Trujillo) is sensational. And the three generations of women portrayed form a triumverate whose grit, persistence, fervor and intelligence would be hard to beat: Gloria (Ana Villafane, a supremely natural beauty, with singing, acting and dancing talent aplenty, who is making a formidable Broadway musical debut), her tigress mother, Gloria Fajardo (Andrea Burns in an absolutely riveting turn), and her grandmother, Consuelo (Alma Cuervo, an easily mischievous charmer).
In addition, the essentials of the story are strong: The tension between parents and children in a family of immigrant strivers; the fierce love, but often difficult dynamics of a marriage in which the personal and professional are tightly intertwined; the crucial battles that had to be waged against a music industry initially blind to the potential of a crossover sound; the shattering tour bus accident that put Gloria’s life in the balance, but ultimately became a personal triumph.
But there are big problems here, too, and, as is so often the case with new musicals, they are rooted in the book, in this case the work of Alexander Dinelaris (who wrote the Academy Award-winning screenplay for “Birdman”). With an uneven, cut-and-paste quality that is often confusing in its sense of time, place and politics, it wrongly assumes the audience will fill in the many blanks. It will not. The direction by Jerry Mitchell (of “Kinky Boots” renown), cannot obscure them, and sometimes even exacerbates them with little oversights (a lack of horrific sound in the seminal moment of the bus crash and Gloria’s far too flexible use of her back after rehab).
Following the show’s highly entertaining opening blast, the story is set in motion from too many directions, with Havana and Miami becoming oddly jumbled, both chronologically and scenically (the bland, clumsy sets by David Rockwell don’t help matters). It is never made clear that Gloria and Emilio each had different paths out of Cuba in the wake of the revolution. And when, years later, Emilio has a brief emotional breakdown upon arriving at the Madrid airport, it’s a good bet few in the audience will understand that he emigrated to Spain before coming to the U.S.
And there is more. When did Gloria give birth to the young son (eye-popping little dancer Eduardo Hernandez) who suddenly appears at her hospital bedside? Why, for just one example, are the Estefans playing bar mitzvahs and weddings after their records have sold millions in the global Latin market? When Emilio erupts in a fiery speech about being every bit as American as so-called mainstream musicians, little groundwork has been laid to his personal history. (Until then, it’s his mother-in-law who seems to be his greatest adversary, and she is formidable.) And then there’s the matter of the finale. Of course it must be an eruption of song and dance, but it just feels tacked on rather than organic.
This is not to say there are not winningly memorable scenes: When Emilio (Josh Segarra in a competent but less than charismatic turn), very gallantly woos the shy, young, “good girl,” Gloria, whose mother could not be more openly disapproving; when Burns, whose own career in show biz was squelched by her father, erupts in a sizzling nightclub act from her glory days; when an all-white “dance dream” unfolds as Gloria undergoes perilous back surgery, and all the relationships in her life coalesce. Perhaps most scorching of all is Gloria’s outburst against Emilio when, less than a year after her accident and grueling rehab, he presses her to make an appearance at the 1991 American Music Awards, and she blasts him for always pushing her to the breaking point.
There is a great deal of promise here. But “On Your Feet!” is not quite walking strong.