After a successful two-year run in New York and a hugely popular international production in The Netherlands, the national touring production of the jukebox musical On Your Feet! the biographical story of Gloria and Emilio Estefan, hit the road last year and arrives in Tempe with a burst of explosive high-energy, backed by a kaleidoscopic array of ever flashing color at ASU Gammage, playing now until November 11.
Beginning with an on-stage 1990 performance, the set reverses and we’re immediately backstage as Gloria (a vivacious Christie Prades, just as she should be) readies herself to join the dancers and musicians. Underlining the show’s theme of family and its importance no matter where you are or what you’re doing, Gloria’s young son, Nayib is told to stop peering at the concert from the wings and go do his homework. When dad, Emilio (Ektor Rivera) complains that he’s already told his boy three times to do the same thing yet it only took his mother the once for the child to obey, Gloria responds with humor, “It’s the accent.”
From there, with the use of on-screen projections and scenic designer David Rockwell’s tall, moving panels that slide both on and off stage and occasionally rotate, plus some split-second timing from the performers themselves, the show flashbacks to a younger Gloria, singing, playing the guitar, and recording a tape for her father.
Like the cinematic technique of a fade in/fade out, a moving panel dissolves the girl from sight almost as soon as we’ve seen her, and she’s gone. But her voice continues on the tape that her father (Eddie Noel) is listening to while serving a tour in sixties Vietnam. “Hearing your voice is like having you next to me,” he says. Then, no sooner have we arrived, we’re gone again. The projected backscreen of a dull gray Vietnam setting changes to the bright, colorful backdrop of a vibrant Little Havana neighborhood of Miami where Gloria, now older and doing the chores, lives with her mother (Nancy Ticotin) and her grandmother (Alma Cuervo). At this point, her father is housebound, continuing his battle with Multiple Sclerosis.
Once the leader of a local band, Emilio Estefan, arrives asking Gloria if she’d like to tryout and sing with the guys at a rehearsal, the story takes flight at a breathless pace, jumping from conflict to conflict almost as fast as those opening scenes of the flashback to Gloria as a child, to Vietnam, and back again to Miami. There’s a lot to get through. First, there’s the need for a hesitant Gloria, a psychology major, to overcome her resistance to being under a spotlight. Plus, her mother, for reasons later revealed, is not so keen on her daughter following a musical career. But the hugely likable figure of grandma sees things in a different light. “This is what you are meant to do,” she tells the seventeen-year-old girl, “Only you don’t know it yet.” And, of course, grandma is right.
The show’s first half covers all the ups and downs of the band as they try to get radio airplay, something they do by going personally from station to station making deals. “It’s not about the sales,” Emilio insists. “It’s about the exposure.”
The second half covers their biggest conflict; the devastating collision of the band’s tour bus with a truck during a snowstorm in Pennsylvania. “Will she walk again?” asks Emilio of the doctors once it’s revealed that Gloria’s back is broken and that she might not survive the nine-hour surgery.
The Estefan catalog of songs is used in two ways – in performance and as an emotional backdrop in the narrative. When the band performs Rhythm is Gonna Get You or Conga, it’s on a stage in front of a crowd, making the Gammage audience not only viewers but players in the show. When a song is part of the story, Don’t Wanna Lose You is a heartfelt number sung by Emilio at Gloria’s bedside when he fears her life is in danger.
Curiously, some of Gloria’s biggest hits of the eighties, Bad Boy, Words Get in the Way, and Falling in Love (Uh-Oh) are missing, which at first seems peculiar, particularly knowing how huge they were. You’d think they would be an essential part of the biographical tale. But, thinking again, maybe not so curious. Unlike, say, Mamma Mia! where a whole scene might be created to conclude with a specific Abba hit, On Your Feet! is based around real-life moments. In keeping with the Latin-flavored crossover songs of the in-performance scenes where two styles of music combine to underline the meeting of two cultures, those missing FM-friendlies wouldn’t work. And in the narrative, there’d be no place where the quirky Bad Boy or a catchy Falling in Love (Uh-Oh) would fit. In the end, there was nowhere to put them.
Writer Alexander Dinelaris’ book is heavily fragmented in the story’s telling, and the conflicts with a band trying to get its musical career off the ground are not altogether that remarkable. The accents, the immigration background, and the Miami setting certainly make things appear fresh, but the conflicts themselves can’t overcome the notion of familiarity; it’s like seeing things you think you’ve seen before but in a different, less spirited setting. The first half, while always full of life, fabulous choreography by Sergio Trujillo, and all scenes moving from one to another at breakneck speed, goes through the motions. It’s in the second half with the conflicts of the horrendous crash and the relationship with Gloria’s mother plus the reasons behind the woman’s constant refusal to support her daughter’s career where the show finds its own individual footing.
The show may end with Gloria’s triumphant re-appearance on stage at the American Music Awards, but in reality, the Estefan story hasn’t stopped. Success continues, even now. There was the Greatest Hits CD, Gloria’s teaming up with Jon Secada’s on his hit Just Another Day, the enormously successful Christmas Through Your Eyes CD, and her Spanish language album Mi Tierra. And that’s just the tip of the ever-developing iceberg. The jukebox musical itself has its own behind-the-scenes story to tell with more international productions planned, and a London West End opening due next summer at the prestigious London Coliseum.
After a night at ASU Gammage in Tempe, if there’s one thing you leave knowing about the Estefans it’s that Gloria and Emilio did things their way. They had to. There was no choice. Without their relentless insistence, there would never have been a Miami Sound Machine, and there would never have been an internationally successful career. Which is why it’s no surprise to learn just how involved they were with the Latin-flavored pop/rock musical that tells the story of their lives. It was their idea, their pitch to Broadway, and their approval on how things would be done. The slickly efficient production may not be for all followers of musical theatre, but it’s certainly one for the fans of Gloria Estefan, the same ones who sent all that adoring mail and that mountain of red roses to the singer after she was flown to NYC for emergency spinal surgery. On Your Feet! is exactly what they want.
On Your Feet! continues at ASU Gammage in Tempe until. Sunday, November 11
Picture Courtesy of Matthew Murphy