Review: With high-octane numbers, ‘On Your Feet!’ an honest story about the Estefans and a refreshing take on jukebox musicals
These days, it seems like every successful 1970s-’90s recording artist is cashing in their catalog and autobiography for a Broadway jukebox musical.
Some are great, like “Jersey Boys.” Some, like “Good Vibrations,” widely miss the mark. And some embellish the truth, like “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.” Now comes “On Your Feet!,” the musical story of Latin crossover artists Gloria and Emilio Estefan, which has terrific music and a compellingly honest story.
The 2015 Broadway musical’s national touring production, at the San Diego Civic Theatre through Sunday, is well-cast and particularly well-danced as it celebrates the Cuban-born Miami couple’s hard-fought road to success.
The best jukebox musicals have great music, and “On Your Feet!” has 26 Estefan hits, including their biggest smash “Conga,” which concludes the first act and starts the second. But the best jukebox musicals also tell a good story and Alexander Dinelaris’ time-traveling book doesn’t flinch in revealing some of the darker parts of the Estefans’ story.
Gloria was just 17 when she met her future manager and husband in the mid-1970s and joins his Miami-based Latin band as lead singer. Gloria is smart and a gifted singer and songwriter. Combined with her husband’s unyielding work ethic and business acumen, they gradually made the crossover from the Latin to mainstream music charts worldwide.
The musical hopscotches back and forth through time, incorporating short scenes that recap their families’ escape from Cuba; Gloria’s father’s U.S. Army service in Vietnam and fatal battle with multiple sclerosis; and their battles with record company executives, Gloria’s disapproving mother and each other.
It concludes in 1991 with Gloria’s triumphant return to the stage a year after suffering severe back injuries in a tour bus crash. Since the musical barely dents the Estefans’ catalog, the 28-member cast take their bows in an extended song-and-dance medley.
Director Jerry Mitchell never lets the show’s momentum flag, but he lets the audience catch their breath with well-placed quiet moments in the story.
Sergio Trujillo’s high-octane Latin choreography is exceptional. And the tapestry of Cuban, Latin-American, African and American music that influenced the Estefans’ sound is richly embodied by an onstage orchestra, which includes some original members of the Estefans’ Miami Sound Machine band.
Christie Prades is a charismatic, big-voiced dynamo who looks, sings and dances like Gloria Estefan in her 20s and 30s. As the fast-talking, heavily accented Emilio, Ektor Rivera — who made his Broadway debut in 2016 as Emilio — started out tentative on Wednesday night, then grew in confidence and vocal power as the show wore on.
Nancy Ticotin is an eye-popping force of nature as Gloria’s stubborn mother, also named Gloria, who was a Cuban nightclub star in her heyday and is jealous and embittered by her daughter’s marriage and success.
Other standouts are sweet-voiced Jason Martinez as Gloria’s father, José; Jordan Vergara as the fleet-footed, maracas-shaking boy Jeremy; and Debra Cardona as Gloria’s big-hearted grandmother, Consuelo.
“On Your Feet!” closed last summer after nearly two years on Broadway and is now touring in the U.S. and Europe, with numerous international productions still on the way. Judging by San Diego’s ecstatic response, the musical will have a long life on the road, just like its multiplatinum-selling inspirations.
“On Your Feet!”
When: 7:30 p.m. today. 8 p.m. Friday. 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday. 1 and 6 p.m. Sunday
Where: San Diego Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave., downtown.
Tickets: About $22.50-$110
Phone: (619/858/760) 570-1100