People who claim they aren’t happier when they leave “On Your Feet!” than when they arrived aren’t adequately in touch with their feelings.
That’s my opinion, and I’m sticking to it. Oh, sure, the touring show in the Kennedy Center Opera House — subtitled “The Emilio and Gloria Estefan Broadway Musical” — relies all too faithfully on the worn treads of showbiz biography: Star struggles, falls in love, hits it big, fights for her art and with her mother, suffers painful setbacks and, as is absolutely compulsory on the sunny side of the genre, triumphs in the end.
But hey, the star is Gloria Estefan. She and husband Emilio and their group, Miami Sound Machine, have made some terrific music together. “Dr. Beat,” “Don’t Want to Lose You,” “Live for Loving You” are among the 26 songs that fill the hall. As a result, the pop-tune-packed show, slickly directed by Jerry Mitchell — and featuring exceptionally well-matched Christie Prades as Gloria and Mauricio Martinez as Emilio — exudes exhilarating amounts of Estefan-inspired passion, joy and that old-school, crowd-pleasing ingredient: pizazz.
Like the swivel-hipped cadre of dancers who salsa and mambo the night away courtesy of choreographer Sergio Trujillo’s seductive steps, the show is alive — and it never flags. There’s a party going on up there, amid the (thank heavens) well-amplified proceedings. And if you have the urge to get up and conga during the boisterous rendition of “Get on Your Feet,” well, the cast is only too happy to see to it that you do.
“On Your Feet!” and book writer Alexander Dinelaris give an audience a complete portrait of how intertwined are the romantic and professional ambitions of Gloria and Emilio. The musical is as much about their unstoppable drive as it is about their music. Compelled to push back against a recording industry that wants to keep them pigeonholed in the “Latin market,” the Cuban-born Estefans are presented here as paragons of first-generation American aspiration. “You can’t cross over, because nobody crosses over,” says the New York producer (Devon Goffman) who doesn’t want to record their first song in English.
Incensed by the nativist-sounding naysaying, Martinez’s quick-to-pounce Emilio gets the biggest crowd reaction of the night when he stares back at the producer and dismisses the put-down with the applause line: “Whether you know it or not, this is what an American looks like!”
That declaration plays well in 2018. With flashbacks to the exodus of Cuba after the takeover by Fidel Castro, the musical makes sure we’re aware of the sacrifices of the Estefans’ families, especially those of Gloria’s father José Fajardo (Jason Martinez), who arrived in the United States and not too long after was sent to Vietnam, where he was severely wounded.
Nancy Ticotin is particularly impressive as Gloria’s mother, also named Gloria. A singer in her own right — Ticotin’s smashing in a Havana nightclub scene, singing the impassioned “Mi Tierra” — the mother becomes an embittered thorn in her daughter’s side. Their conflict grows, much to the chagrin of kindly Consuelo (Alma Cuervo, reprising her Broadway turn), who seems more a fairy godmother than a mere abuela. Ticotin’s persuasive embodiment of the mother’s jealousy and mistrust of Emilio grandly sets up the inevitable, misty-eyed reconciliation scene, around the hospital bed of the younger Gloria, herself seriously injured in a crash of her tour bus.
Prades and Mauricio Martinez forge a wholly convincing bond themselves — a stronger chemistry even than was apparent on Broadway between the roles’ excellent originators, Ana Villafañe and Josh Segarra; Prades and Martinez’s voices share a more satisfying balance of power, which also adds to the impression that Gloria and Emilio were made for each other. Which, of course, is why a vivacious “On Your Feet!” exists at all.
On Your Feet! The Gloria and Emilio Estefan Broadway Musical , Book by Alexander Dinelaris, music by Emilio and Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine. Choreography, Sergio Trujillo; sets, David Rockwell; costumes, Emilio Sosa; lighting, Kenneth Posner; sound, SCK Sound Design; music direction, Clay Ostwald; projections, Darrel Maloney; production stage manager, Eric Insko. With Amaris Sanchez, Carmen Sanchez, Kevin Tellez, Jordan Vergara. About 2 hours 30 minutes. $59-$149. Through Jan. 28 at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Visit kennedy-center.org or call 202-467-4600.