Review: On Your Feet!

Christie Prades as Gloria Estefan and company in On Your Feet!  Photo by Matthew Murphy

By Larry Laneer
February 7, 2019

One could note the jukebox musical On Your Feet! leaves the audience on their feet, but every show at the Thelma Gaylord, no matter how mediocre, gets a standing ovation, so that’s no big deal. The production does have high energy that’s way beyond the weightiness of the show.

As part of the OKC Broadway touring series, On Your Feet! tells the middle-class-to-riches story of pop singer Gloria Estefan, who flourished late in the last century. With music by Emilio and Gloria Estefan and book by Alexander Dinelaris, the show has its musical and visual charms but seems flimsy compared to how the singer actually achieved world-wide fame.

The Estefans’ story has enough tragedies and triumphs to fill an evening of musical theater. The couple’s families fled Cuba when Castro came to power. Gloria’s father suffered multiple sclerosis after serving as an Army captain in Vietnam. The family lived a modest, if comfortable, life in Miami. Gloria studied psychology in college, but her first love was music. Encouraged by her grandmother, she attracted the attention of Emilio Estefan and the band Miami Latin Boys, which became Miami Sound Machine when Gloria joined the group while still a teenager. Her mother’s opposition to Gloria’s going on the road with the band led to a years-long rift between them. Gloria and Emilio struggled for airplay on radio stations and in dance clubs. They got flak from record company executives. A devastating tour bus crash could have rendered Gloria permanently paralyzed (but didn’t). Gloria achieved huge success as a pop music superstar and, eventually, a Kennedy Center Honors.

The score consists entirely of music from the Estefan songbook, although one number was written just for this show. Songs are performed as if in rehearsal or performance or as non-diegetic songs. (In non-diegetic songs, which are common in musicals, the characters are not aware they are singing. “Edelweiss” from The Sound of Music is an example of a diegetic song, because Captain von Trapp is singing it to other characters in the show.) This works out more smoothly than you might think and better than in some jukebox musicals (we’re looking at you Mamma Mia!)

Directed by Jerry Mitchell, this production does have the flashy look and sound the music demands. David Rockwell’s scenic design features tall moving panels that float around the stage and a backdrop, which display the many locations where the story takes place. Kenneth Posner’s excellent lighting comes off both subtle and (literally) in your face. Costumes by Emilio Sosa start with soft tones in the Latin neighborhoods of Miami and grow more glittery in a pre-revolution Havana nightclub and as Gloria gains fame. Sergio Trujillo’s choreography stays period authentic and is danced sharply by the cast.

A 10-piece onstage band highlights the show. And they can wail. In an age when touring shows come through with a couple of wheezing synthesizers and a drummer, this band gives the production a musical edge.

Christie Prades and Eddie Noel play Gloria and Emilio, both fine. Gloria aficionados can weigh in on the credibility of Prades as the singer. Her voice has an appealing smoky quality at times. Nancy Ticotin gives a strong performance as Gloria’s mother. Debra Cardona wins over the audience as the grandmother. At the reviewed performance, young Jeanpaul Medina Solano kept up with the adult dancers by literally shaking a leg and ending his steps with a cartwheel. This music needs exuberant, strong performances, and the cast gives the production a solid core.

One problem with doing show about real people is the audience knows how the story ends before leaving home for the theater. Mitchell and Dinelaris don’t find a way to create dramatic tension or suspense. No matter the disagreement between Gloria and her mother, regardless of the Estefans’ frustration at getting their music heard beyond weddings and bar mitzvahs, never mind the nearly career-ending bus accident, you know everything will be fine. It’s possible to create dramatic interest in a true story, but it doesn’t happen in this show.

Gloria Estefan fans may not care about those details. They like taking a time machine for two-and-a-half hours back to the singer’s heyday and their own giddy youth. (A woman near me sniffled through the scene with Gloria in her hospital bed.)  This well-done production will put some theatergoers on their feet. For others, it might bring tears—or produce yawns.

On Your Feet! by Emilio and Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine (music) and Alexander Dinelaris (book)
OKC Broadway
7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8:00 p.m. Friday, 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Saturday,
2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Sunday, through February10
Thelma Gaylord Performing Arts Theatre
201 N. Walker Ave.
Ticket prices vary
405-594-8300