I can’t remember the last pre-Broadway tryout I saw in Chicago that was already as self-assured as On Your Feet!, the new musical bio of Gloria Estefan and her producer-manager husband, Emilio. I might point to Kinky Boots, which shares On Your Feet!’s director, Jerry Mitchell. But as thrilling as that show was in Chicago in 2012, I saw elements that could be improved. It’s hard to say the same about this smart, slick but heartfelt new crowd pleaser.
Book writer Alexander Dinelaris—who won the Oscar earlier this year as a screenwriter of Birdman—opens with a prologue backstage on the night of the 1990 tour bus accident that put a hitch in Estefan’s career at its height. The story then jumps back to 1960s Miami, where young Gloria Fajardo’s love of music and songwriting is encouraged by her doting abuela, Consuelo (the delightful Alma Cuervo). Soon, teenage Gloria is visited by Emilio Estefan, leader of the local band Miami Latin Boys, who invites her to a rehearsal; it’s not long before Emilio realizes the band’s going to have to change that name.
It’s also instantly clear that the connection between Emilio and Gloria is more than a professional one, and the chemistry between their portrayers here, the magnetically confident Josh Segarra and stunning newcomer Ana Villafañe, is thick and sultry.
The first act follows their rise to crushing music industry conventional wisdom with the crossover success of “Conga”; Act II touches on the strain of massive success both on Gloria and Emilio’s relationship and that of Gloria and her mother (Andréa Burns) before returning to the foreshadowed car accident and painful recovery.
Dinelaris and Mitchell keep the story smartly structured and paced, and the songs (“1-2-3,” “Anything for You,” “Don’t Wanna Lose You” and “Coming Out of the Dark” are just a handful of the wellspring of Miami Sound Machine and solo hits and deep cuts represented) are integrated more organically than in any other “jukebox” musical in memory.
The storytelling is so sophisticated it makes Motown the Musical look like a school pageant; in a sequence set during Gloria’s long post-accident spinal surgery, there’s even the pop-music equivalent of a dream ballet, with Sergio Trujillo’s spectacular choreography calling back to itself in earlier scenes. And in Villafañe and Segarra, the show has deserving breakout stars.
It feels a step too far to give the “perfect” five-star rating to a show that’s bound to keep evolving before its October New York bow. But maybe it’s enough to know I considered it. In the new Broadway season, On Your Feet! is one new entry with legs.
Oriental Theatre. Book by Alexander Dinelaris. Featuring music produced and recorded by Emilio & Gloria Estefan & Miami Sound Machine. Directed by Jerry Mitchell. With Ana Villafañe, Josh Segarra, Andréa Burns, Alma Cuervo. Running time: 2hrs 30mins; one intermission.