Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Rhythm is Gonna Get You

Review: On Your Feet!

Ana Villafañe and the cast of On Your Feet!, clearly having an absolute blast.

When people discuss great works of musical theatre, the conversation tends to steer towards shows that have weighty sociological or philosophical themes underlying all their razzle dazzle (think West Side Story, Rent, Hamilton, or any of the works of Stephen Sondheim). Judged by those standards, On Your Feet! is far from a great musical, but it is a highly entertaining one, thanks to the infectious music of Latin crossover sensation Gloria Estefan, high-energy dance routines, and a beguiling central performance by newcomer Ana Villafañe. Polished to a high sheen by all involved, chances are you'll be too busy having fun to really worry about the piece's structural flaws.

On Your Feet! tells the story of Gloria Estefan and her husband Emilio, following the pop singer from her days as a plucky child with the dream through her rise to international superstardom. The show hits all the requisite bio-musical story beats, including her struggles against unsupportive record labels, her romance and eventual marriage to writing partner Emilio, and the pressures fame places upon her and her family. Bookwriter Alexander Dinelaris dutifully shuttles the story from one plot point to another while working in all of the Estefans' biggest hits, providing just enough personal details in the process to keep the characters from feeling like complete caricatures.

Yet Dinelaris also glosses over some key points in Gloria's life and career. The Estefans go from playing small Miami clubs in one scene to fighting the record label over their contractual right to release an English-language recording in the next, but we never see or hear how they got said contract in the first place. They also have a son at some point, who just sort of appears as a nine-year-old without any other indication a significant amount of time has passed. It's not that you can't follow the plot, but a bit more specificity would be appreciated. To Dinelaris' credit (and the Estefans', who were heavily involved in the show's development), the book doesn't shy away from Gloria's sometimes contentious relationship with her mother or the arguments she would have with Emilio over her grueling schedule, which provides just enough dramatic tension to sustain interest between production numbers.

Like Dinelaris' book, Jerry Mitchell's direction is more workman-like than inspired. It gets the job done, but it isn't especially memorable or inventive. The clear highlight of the staging is Sergio Trujillo's exuberant production numbers, which pop with an authentic Latin flair that never gets old. When the entire cast gets onstage to shake their moneymakers to the bouncing "Conga" beat or proudly proclaim "The Rhythm is Gonna Get You," don't be surprised if your toes start tapping along. Both acts end with the cast entreating the audience to get up and dance, and it is a testament to the energetic and fun spirit of the evening that most people need little coercion to comply. (One has to imagine that two-time Best Choreography Tony-winner Mitchell had at least a partial hand in the dances, which helps make up for his run of the mill staging elsewhere.)

Leading the cast in a first-rate Broadway debut is Cuban-American actress Ana Villafañe as Gloria Estefan, and the talented young performer looks and sounds so much like the pop icon that it can be disconcerting. Her voice is a dead ringer for Estefan's, with a glorious lower register that seamlessly transitions into a bright yet powerful belt that mimics the latter's most famous recordings. Villafañe also proves herself quite the capable actress and dancer, radiating the kind of confidence and joy that made Estefan an international superstar and elevating the entire production in the process. She is definitely one to watch, and fits the role so perfectly it's difficult to imagine On Your Feet! without her.

Josh Segarra is both charming and handsome as Emilio Estefan, who first discovered Gloria and shepherded her to superstar status. Much of the show's humor comes at Segarra's expense, from his initial entrance in ridiculous short-shorts to a running joke about Emilio's tenuous grasp on the English language. The actor is game for whatever is thrown his way, and while his singing voice is occasionally overpowered by the orchestra and the rest of the singers that doesn't make his performance any less endearing. Broadway veteran Andrea Burns does fine work as Gloria's initially skeptical mother, delivering the most fully realized character while also getting her own show-stopping moment via flashback.

Visually, On Your Feet! is an appealing combination of the most outlandish and sophisticated elements of the 1980s. Costume designer ESosa utilizes beautiful pastels and jewel tones to make every character pop, and has a lot of fun creating his own riffs on the most iconic 80s fashion. Shoulder pads, leg warmers, and high-waisted everything all get their time to shine in ESosa's work, and he knows exactly how much neon and sparkle to use to capture the decade's boldness without descending into gaudiness. David Rockwell's set often takes a backseat to the costumes, but overall the show has a cohesive look that is tied together using Kenneth Posner's concert-influenced lighting.

On Your Feet! succeeds at what it sets out to do, which is to be an enjoyable piece of escapist entertainment. Ana Villafañe leads an excellent cast of singer/dancers in large scale production numbers set to some of the catchiest songs of the late 80s and early 90s, and like the Estefans' music the show is both upbeat and life-affirming. Those who go in with the right set of expectations will be surprised by how much fun they can have, and those who want their musicals with a bit more meat on their bones probably won't be all that interested in the first place.

1 comment:

  1. Rumor has it a Pat Benatar musical is heading to Broadway next in terms of musicals about female musicians.