Beloved Top 40 baby boomer and Generation X songs have been music to the ears of Broadway producers based on the success of such shows as “Jersey Boys,” “Beautiful,” “Mamma Mia,” and “Rock Of Ages.” Joining that list of jukebox musicals is “On Your Feet!” that tells the story of ‘80s and early ‘90s hit makers Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine. The band was founded by her future husband, Emilio Estefan.
The play opens in 1968 Miami where eleven year-old Gloria Fajardo lives with her mom, grandmother, and younger sister Rebecca. Her dad, Jose Fajardo, is serving his country as a captain in Viet Nam. Even at a young age, Gloria can enchant all with her voice and guitar-playing.
The next scene fast forwards a few years as Gloria (played by Ana Villafane) is studying psychology at the University of Miami but she still loves singing. Emilio Estefan (portrayed by Josh Segarra) is the leader of the Miami Latin Boys and invites her to audition. He is smitten by her attitude, talent, and looks. Since she is fronting the band, Emilio changes the name of his outfit to the Miami Sound Machine.
Emilio proves to be an adept promoter as he finances the band’s first English-speaking record, “Dr. Beat,” and practices old school retail politics as he meets with radio station music directors and dance club deejays and promises that his band will perform for free if they’ll play the song.
The Miami Sound Machine had long been a money-maker for CBS International Records in that Latin American market with their Spanish albums but the label’s executives are less than keen about their prospects at crossing over to the American pop market. Even when the band produces one of the biggest hits of 1984, the infectious “Conga,” CBS Records executives remained skeptical about the band’s chances of being more than a one-hit wonder. Former CBS Records president Walter Yetnikoff comes off as a villain in the show however since he is still alive he is referred to by his fictional stand-in, Warren.
Gloria Estefan’s family life was certainly not peaches and cream, by any means. Her father, who fled Cuba with his family as soon as Fidel Castro assumed power, managed to return home from Viet Nam but would become an invalid from multiple sclerosis. Her mother, also named Gloria, was a performer in Havana who shelved her acting dreams to raise a family, and makes it clear that she wishes that her talented daughter would do the same. Their constant friction is not easy to sit through.
The choreography, singing, and acting is first rate. Amy Villafane looks and sounds just like Gloria Estefan. Suave and handsome Josh Segarra captures the outwardly laid-back but inwardly extremely determined Emilio Estefan to a tee. The script lets them down at times however.
The Estefans, who were heavily involved with the writing, are unflinching when it comes to describing the 1991 accident that occurred in Northeast Pennsylvania where a truck slammed into their tour bus on Interstate 81. The hospital scenes are maudlin and Gloria’s difficult rehabilitation exercise routines lead to her having a short fuse with both her trainer and her hubby. The constant snapping is irritating.
I am not sure if the real Emilio Estefan can sing since Gloria has always served as the lead vocalist of the band but let’s just say that singing is not Josh Segarra’s forte.
It’s always great to hear upbeat fare are “Rhythm Is Gonna You,” ‘1-2-3,” and “Conga” as well as melodic ballads as “Don’t Wanna Lose You” and “Anything For You” but things slow to a crawl when the cast is asked to sing songs written especially for this show as they are quite draggy and far from melodic.
The subtitle of “On Your Feet” is “The Story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan.” Of course it’s impossible to tell everything in 2½ hours but there is something dishonest about the show’s failure to deal with how Emilio and Gloria acrimoniously fired many of the original members of the Miami Sound Machine just as they were all hitting it big.
“On Your Feet” is more or less an enjoyable theatrical experience but the record should have been set straight. It also would have added to the enjoyment if two of the band’s lively hits, “Bad Boy” and “Betcha Say That,” could have been included.