“On Your Feet!,” which had its official opening Thursday night, now takes its place in the upper echelons of the jukebox genre, a club that already admitted the Tony-winning “Jersey Boys” and the more recent Broadway hit “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.” None of these qualify as great art, although they make for polished commercial properties: The breakthrough of “Jersey Boys” was in demonstrating how a clever narrative mitigates some of the form’s rampant cliches. Like these earlier entries, “On Your Feet!” is a vehicle for delivery of a vibrant songbook and yet another version of that familiar American music-business story — the rise from humble origins of an artist of extraordinary gifts, who faces formidable personal challenges but by dint of will and talent emerges triumphant.
If the Estefans’ musical remains pretty much by-the-numbers, at least those numbers really rock. Backed by a band that includes five members of the Miami Sound Machine — the group that Emilio founded back in the mid-’70s as the Miami Latin Boys — Villafañe proves an alluring and vocally compelling stand-in for the pop star, who overcame record executives’ efforts to confine her to the Latin charts. (At all times, the dancers backing her up execute Trujillo’s exhilarating steps with sinewy pizzazz.) Dinelaris does a fine job, showing us the adaptability and business acumen of Segarra’s Cuban-born, English-mangling Emilio, as he and Gloria set out to prove the experts wrong and expand their pop cultural reach well beyond their Latin-American base.
The show capably covers the couple’s connection to the Cuba that Emilio, and Gloria’s parents, fled in the midst of the Communist takeover; one of the most satisfying interludes is a flashback set in a Havana nightclub, where Gloria’s mother (the excellent Andrea Burns), later an embittered Miami housewife, sings a sensuous “Mi Tierra.” The evening’s warm-and-fuzzy quotient is more than adequately filled by Gloria’s doting grandmother (an expert Alma Cuervo), who encourages her magnetic granddaughter’s ambitions even when Gloria’s mother tries to rein in both her dreams and her feelings for Emilio.
The Estefans’ can-do attitude is on witty display in an early musical sequence meant to demonstrate the universal appeal of their rhythms: The Sound Machine’s infectious energy turns every gig, whether a wedding, convention or bar mitzvah, into an exhilarating party with a Latin beat. And though there are brief glimpses of tensions — such as when Gloria pushes back at the punishing pace Emilio sets for her during concert tours, or when she bristles during her long recovery from spinal injuries suffered in a horrific bus crash — “On Your Feet!” is far more often a portrait of devotion. That Gloria and Emilio manage to endure, in an industry not known for emotional stability, may be the musical’s most radical twist on the formula.
On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan, book by Alexander Dinelaris, music by Emilio and Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine. Directed by Jerry Mitchell. Choreography, Sergio Trujillo; sets, David Rockwell; costumes, ESosa; lighting, Kenneth Posner; sound, SCK Sound Design; music direction, Lon Hoyt. With Eduardo Hernandez, Genny Lis Padilla, Lee Zarrett. About 2 1/2 hours. Tickets, $55-$249. At Marquis Theatre, 1535 Broadway. Visit ticketmaster.com or call 877-250-2929.