Not to get all judgmental or anything, but real talk: If you sit through “On Your Feet!” and don’t find yourself on your feet by the finale? Check yourself, pal. You may be dead. Such is the verve and percussive firepower propelling the musical bio of Grammy-winning songstress Gloria Estefan.
Back for the first time since its pre-Broadway tryout here in 2015, “On Your Feet!” doesn’t miss a step. Director Jerry Mitchell has shaped the show into an exuberant party, powered by more than two dozen of Estefan’s greatest hits, a mega-watt ensemble and a white-hot onstage band that features several members of the Estefan’s original band, the Miami Sound Machine.
Some may scoff that “Coming Out of the Dark” is cut from the same chest-thumping bathos as “My Heart Will Go On,” but make no mistake: As deployed in “On Your Feet!,” the song will give you (as the kids say) all the feelz. At the risk of alienating those among us who would rather have a root canal than be shamed into “audience participation” segments, rest assured: The conga line that caps the first half of “On Your Feet!” is a beast of joyful pandemonium.
‘On Your Feet! The Emilio and Gloria Estefan Musical’ ★★★1/2 When: Through April 8 Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph Tickets: $30-$110 Info: BroadwayinChicago.com Run time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, including one intermission
Sometimes – in the first act especially – it almost feels like “On Your Feet! (book by Oscar winner Alexander Dinelaris, music by Estefan and husband Emilio) is reaching to find a conflict that can sustain the two-and-a-half-hour run time. Estefan’s life story is (on the whole) a good deal sunnier than that of many a superstar. Her ascent to superstardom is relatively uneventful. There are no drug overdoses or broken marriages.
The first act’s primary conflict comes not from Gloria’s struggles in the music business, but in her struggle to get her mom to accept her career and her boyfriend (later husband), the bandleader Emilio. The second act is centered on the horrific 1990 tour bus crash that left Estefan with a broken vertebra that could have paralyzed her. Spoiler alert (for those who don’t realize Estefan is still alive and well and making music): She recovers.
The low-bar conflict hardly matters. With a cast anchored by Christie Prades as Gloria and Mauricio Martinez as Emilio, the singing, dancing (choreography by Sergio Trujillo) and storytelling of “On Your Feet” are glorious. The emotional surges may be predictable, but they feel completely genuine. Combined with the show’s irresistible score, that veracity gives “On Your Feet!” its power.
Trujillo’s work is crucial, from the aforementioned conga to the intricate salsa-and-rumba-infused acrobatics of “Turn the Beat Around” and “Dr. Beat.” Love, lust, elation and sorrow have long been fundamentals in the vocabulary of dance, but here, even mundane activities like doing laundry have flair, sass and intrigue. Watch for the scene when Gloria is under anesthesia, hovering between this world and the next. Trujillo turns the stage into a dreamscape memory palace, graceful and ephemeral as mist.
As Gloria, Prades has an incandescence about her, as well as an energy that’s palpable. Technically, she’s an excellent dancer and a fine singer, but she brings something else to the part that can’t be taught. It’s a mix of energy and empathy that has you rooting for Gloria throughout.
Martinez instills Emilio with an effortless smolder and a wry humor. Gloria and Emilio share an uncompromising pride in their Cuban roots and belief in the power of their talents. Neither suffers fools — or bigots — lightly. Emilio’s story has taken on weight since the show’s 2015 premiere. As “On Your Feet!” tells it, he was sent to the U.S. as a child by his parents. When “On Your Feet!” shows him taking on those who would stand in the way of his success with Gloria, he might as well be speaking directly to those who would dismantle DACA or erect walls around the country.
It’s music, of course, more than politics, that draws people to “On Your Feet!” The show is first and foremost a worthy, high-octane roster of Estefan hits, more than ably conducted by music director Clay Ostwald and a band that includes several members of the original Miami Sound Machine. The show is a no-brainer must-see for Estefan fans. And for anybody who needs a shot of exuberance.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.