A difficult aspect about creating musicals based on the lives of popular musicians is the task of making both the music and the plot equally compelling. For the most part, On Your Feet! keeps audiences invested in the story of the Miami Sound Machine Cuban-American lead singer Gloria Estefan (Christie Prades), and her devoted husband Emilio (Ektor Rivera).
Like that of many singers, Gloria’s path to stardom was far from predictable. A lover of music, she graduated with a B.A. in psychology from the University of Miami in the 1970’s.
Following a chance meeting with Miami Sound Machine founder, Emilio, Gloria quickly began to develop her skills as a pop singer, songwriter and dancer. Thanks in part to their close relationship, Gloria became a globally famous, and beloved, star.
When Alexander Dinelaris’ book is focused on the main plot, the show at the San Diego Civic Theatre is a dramatically effective one. The relationship that Gloria and Emilio develop is romantic and always believable. While their interaction is occasionally heated, the bond they share is never broken.
Much more tense is Gloria’s connection with her mother, Gloria Fajardo (Nancy Ticotin). Despite their love for each other, Gloria Fajardo doesn’t support her daughter’s goals. When the two of them begin to draw further apart, audiences begin to hope that they can find a way to be close and supportive of each other.
Dinelaris’ book is less consistent when it deals with Gloria’s connections with her other family members. Getting the short end of the stick is her sister Rebecca (Claudia Yanez). Most of the interesting aspects and problems she faces are discussed when Rebecca isn’t onstage and, because of this, it’s difficult to feel too much for her struggles.
Neither Gloria’s father Jose (Jason Martinez), nor her grandmother Consuelo (Debra Cardona) get the most promising of introductions. An early sequence depicting Jose’s service in the Vietnam war doesn’t add much to the overall plot, and a few of Consuelo’s jokes, when Gloria and Emilio introduce themselves, would be more appropriate in a romantic comedy.
Their portrayals do soon become effective. Martinez is painfully authentic portraying Jose’s multiple sclerosis, and his interpretation of the song, “When Someone Comes Into Your Life” is powerful.
Consuelo’s jokes do get more amusing, and Cardona leaves the biggest impact when talking to Gloria about her mom’s history with music. It’s in this scene when the grandmother shows herself to be a caring and supportive family member.
Anyone with a basic knowledge of Gloria’s career is aware of the bus crash that left her with a broken back and required her to get multiple surgeries to walk again.
Foreshadowing is used a little too much in the plot, such as a moment when Gloria Fajardo angrily asks whether Emilio will abandon her daughter if problems start to affect their marriage. The actual incident and its aftermath is handled with respect and care by Dinelaris and director Jerry Mitchell.
Although there is a lot of time devoted to Gloria’s personal and professional experiences, music fans who want to hear her hits will not feel shortchanged. Tunes such as “1-2-3,” “Conga,” and “Get On Your Feet” are sung with strong confidence by Prades.
Musicians (most of them appear onstage during various points of the evening), such as music/director/keyboardist Clay Ostwald, trombonist Teddy Mulet and percussionist Edwin Bonilla, are Miami Sound Machine veterans and they delightfully replicate the music featured in Gloria’s songs.
The musical numbers often incorporate Darrel Maloney’s projections (which were occasionally not in focus on opening night) and Kenneth Posner’s lighting, and showcase different places such as Las Vegas, Cuba and Manhattan. Both of these technical elements impress, and also help move the narrative along.
Segments devoted to melodies from Gloria’s Spanish language album, “Mi Tierra,” including a group number,“Tradicion,” and her mother’s rendition of the title track from that CD, are choreographed with plenty of skill by Sergio Trujillo.
Regardless of some of the issues with members of Gloria’s family, and the buildup to her car crash, the story succeeds as a touching and entertaining tribute to the pop star. Ticket buyers should be warned that the “Rhythm is Gonna Get You.”