Review: Passions flow mightily in Broadway San Jose’s electric ‘On Your Feet’

On-Your-Feet_2
Christie Prades is Gloria Estefan in “On Your Feet! The Emilio and Gloria Estefan Broadway Musical” running through Sunday, Oct. 14th in downtown San Jose. (Matthew Murphy photo)

The story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan is one of plenty of joy and triumph, two musical heartbeats discovered in the Cuban community of Miami. Yet despite their success of creating a sound infused with hearty pop and Latin rhythms, their triumphs came at great cost and sacrifice for themselves and their families, nearly costing Gloria her life after a bus accident led to potential paralysis and permanent titanium rods to secure her spine.

“On Your Feet – The Emilio and Gloria Estefan Broadway Musical,” now running at the San Jose Center for Performing Arts via Broadway San Jose through Sunday, Oct. 14th, has a ton going for it. The strength of the show is its faithful commitment to the rhythms of the Miami Sound Machine, a band whose name changed when University of Miami student Gloria Fajardo was brought on to belt tune after tune as the front woman. It is loaded with music that soars on the wings of the powerful orchestra, many of whom are members of the Machine. They recreate every conga hit and timbale smash, nuances of a joyous Cuban sound that was channeled beautifully to create something that appealed to Latinx and non-Latinx folk. While the staging of “Conga,” serves the purpose of explaining the evolution of arguably their most famous song, other tunes have arrangements that are fresh and spry, beautifully colored and touched up with delicious spice.

The story follows many jukebox musical patterns, namely the ascent and discovery of super stardom amongst a youthful, unassuming prodigy. In this case, it is Fajardo (beautifully sung by Christie Prades, who handles the nuance of Estefan’s specific phrasing with aplomb), who along with her unassuming sister Rebecca (Claudia Yanez) meet with bandleader Emilio Estefan (devastatingly handsome talent Ektor Rivera). The young Gloria is not terribly compelled initially with Emilio and his super-tight white shorts, choosing instead to find laughs due to his grappling with English pronunciations. But it doesn’t take long for Emilio to see that Gloria is special. Her talent is limitless, but her dancing skills are not. Gambling a bit to put a young woman up front is a gamble Emilio is willing to take, and before long, Gloria successfully turns her status into a national tour, in no small part due to the support from her grandmother Consuelo (Alma Cuervo).

Gloria’s mother (Nancy Ticotin) is not as happy, with reasons both familial and selfish. In an interesting examination of how Latinx families have the potential to both support and suppress, we learn that her mother isn’t particularly interested in seeing her daughter leave her family obligations and father with multiple sclerosis to chase such a nomadic dream. Her concerns have much to do with her skepticism of Emilio, who may be either a wonderfully supportive collaborator or a Svengali-like taskmaster.

The full range of the Miami Sound Machine sound is wonderful. As someone who grew up with Spanish music on our 45s and full-sized vinyl players constantly, and as much as the English standards are wonderfully arranged, it is the Cuban sounds that marvel. Specifically, the highlight songs of the show come straight off the “Mi Tierra” album, which is still as fresh and fantastic 25 years after its release. Just notice the surreal three-part harmony of “Con Los Años Que Me Quedan,” as Gloria and Emilio begin to discover that their relationship is not just a business one, but one that delves into long-lasting love. Or Ticotin’s mesmerizing rendition of the title song “Mi Tierra,” firing on all cylinders as she brings the tune home after receiving a horrific piece of news. In addition, classics such as “Here We Are” and “Anything for You” move the plot in fluid ways. And a beautiful staging is the song “When Someone Comes Into Your Life,” where Gloria imagines what her healthy father (richly-voiced Eddie Noel) would say about her new love.

As much as the music is the star of the show, the libretto by Alexander Dinelaris falls flat in many moments. There are some nice, passionate touches in the dialogue (the “what an American looks like” speech is particularly nice), but too many moments delve into straight cornball. “Wow, she’s pretty hot, bro,” isn’t exactly stunning stuff, but banal bore. And in other moments where a great musical visionary such as Emilio is pushing all the right buttons, did he really have a moment where he didn’t connect that a dance club might be a good place for a dance track? Things like this pop up and resolve themselves out of nowhere. It certainly caused moments where characters were forced to play more cliché and less truth. You know, those dramatic turns toward the audience with a pained face, or even in some horrid choices, pretending to run after someone and stopping perfectly center stage. Meisner or Morris acting this was not.

A worthy co-star is the choreography of Sergio Trujillo, arguably the hottest choreographer on Broadway at present. Thrilling salsa sequences were executed powerfully by the complement of phenomenal backup dancers. Add in Emilio Sosa’s wonderful period costumes and David Rockwell’s scenic design, and all elements line up for a Broadway experience that is equal parts concert, story and celebration.

The Estefans are an example of living the dream. From their loving and talented union (exemplified charmingly in the opening announcements) to their philanthropy and commitment to their hometown and musical traditions, their gifts are many, and the rhythm of life and music certainly got them.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Broadway San Jose presents “On Your Feet! The Emilio and Gloria Estefan Broadway Musical”
Book by Alexander Dinelaris
Music and lyrics by Gloria and Emilio Estefan
The Word: Solid music and choreography help to forgive the rough book in a crowd pleaser. Arrangements of the songs and the performance of the Miami Sound Machine band members help the show find its footing.
Stars: 4 out of 5
San Jose Center for Performing Arts
255 Almaden Blvd., San Jose, CA 95113
Tickets range from $43 – $153
For more information, call (800) 982-ARTS (2787) or visit the official website

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