“There are so many story lines. It’s a universal story, it’s an immigrant story, and it’s a love story. In the United States, if you believe in yourself and you’re determined and persevere, you’re going to succeed.”
– Gloria Estefan, “Gloria and Emilio Estefan Have Rhythm — and Lots of Romance”, AARP Magazine (August/September 2013)
It was quite a to-do at the Golden Gate Theatre opening night. It was the first show since the theatre received a refurbishing, its first since 1979. This was marked by pre-show speeches by the president of SHN, former SF mayor Willie Brown, and SF political superstar Jane Kim. It concluded with a representative of Mayor London Breed presenting a mayoral resolution that Sept. 12 be declared “SHN Golden Gate Theatre Day”.
Nice as this all was, it took up a good 15-or-so minutes of stage time that could have been dedicated to the show. Given that the average Broadway musical lasts 2 ½ hours plus intermission (which this one did), it’s asking a lot of an audience’s patience to keep them stuck to their seats even longer than planned.
Fortunately, the show is energetic enough to keep you moving in your comfy Golden Gate seat. Though the “story” may me as predictable the sound of thunder following a flash of lightning, the production itself is blessed with a cast and crew that know the right level of energy to bring to a show featuring Gloria Estefan’s music.
Gloria María Milagrosa Fajardo doesn’t seem to dream big in her Florida home. She’s a Psych student who, at the insistence of her mother (also named Gloria), plans to finish her degree and find an “honest” line work. Yet Young Gloria has gained some local acclaim as a pretty good songwriter. So good that she eventually attracts the attention of band leader Emilio Estefan.
With Emilio’s encouragement, Gloria begins to seriously consider a career as not only a songwriter, but a singer as well. Though her mother objects, her beloved grandmother encourages her, and the entire world seems to be waiting just for her.
Have you ever seen a show with so many clichés that it’s easier to count the ones that didn’t pop up? If you’ve ever seen a story about musical acts making it big, then you can map out the beats of this play by pure memory: the discovery from obscurity; the resistance to the “revolutionary new sound”; the put-upon family members at home; the “making it big” moment; the exhaustion from touring; the lowest of lows; the Happily Ever After – it’s all there. As near as I can tell, the only one missing is the one where the musician hears their music on the radio for the first time and then jumps for joy.
But credit where due: what this play does it does well. It’s much better at handling its material than last year’s Temptations musical Ain’t Too Proud (check my Search to see my review). Granted, the two shows are strikingly similar: both have talented casts and crews recreating absolutely amazing music; both speed through the lives of their subjects as if they were in a race to the end of the story; both make pretty jarring dialogue interruptions into their classic songs. Still, On Your Feet! does is better. Whereas Ain’t Too Proud seemed not to care that much about the lives of its subjects, the book for On Your Feet! (by Oscar-winning screenwriter Alexander Dinelaris, Jr.) at least allows moments to linger, emphasizing their importance. When Emilio is in the Madrid airport recalling the last time he saw mother, the moment is treated with due care, even if it never comes before or after this scene. It paints by numbers, but the colors it paints are pretty.
Of course, Dinelaris’ script – and Jerry Mitchell’s direction – live and die by their talented collaborators. The only thing better than watching all the talent involved is reading the abundance of Latinx names in the program. The choreography by Sergio Trujillo and costumes by Emilio Sosa get off to a great start with the early number “Tradición”, an explosive piece that sees young Gloria age from 8 to 18. The rise of Miami Sound Machine’s hit single “Conga” is done via an hilarious montage that finds the band touring a bar mitzvah, an Italian wedding, and, finally, the Vegas Strip. More intimate songs like “Anything for You” appear to be channeling West Side Story in how they have all-but-two characters disappear, but it works perfectly.
And then there’s the cast – an entirely Latinx cast.
Christie Prades doesn’t really channel the often soft-spoken Gloria I’ve always seen interviews, rather she blurs the line between the Gloria we’ve heard in music with the Gloria we’ve never seen off-stage. Estefan isn’t a performer with an outsized personality, so there’s no real imitation of her from which to draw. Still, Prades is a performer with enough talent to make the role her own. Mauricio Martínez doesn’t do as much dancing as Emilio Estefan, but he brings a great deal of heart to the man who may be pushing Gloria a bit too hard. (In fact, I have to wonder if maybe Dinelaris was holding back on the troubles in their marriage? All couples fight, but not all would want their dirtiest laundry aired in a touring Broadway show.) Of course, I’d be remiss not to mention Nancy Ticotin and Alma Cuervo as Mother Gloria and Grandma Consuelo, respectively. As cliché as their roles may be, the actresses steal every scene they’re in.
Lauding the entire cast would take me all day, so let me say that everyone did their work well.
On Your Feet! is a good example of making a lot with very little, narratively speaking. Granted, there was no shortage of life story from which to cull the book, but that book tries to fit in as much as possible within the 2 ½ running time. Truncated as the story may be, this production makes the most of each and every moment. It shows a genuine affection for the music used and a respect for the lives it portrays. Throw in an all-Latinx cast, a primarily-Latinx crew, and classic SF theatre and you’ve got an enjoyable evening on your hands.
On Your Feet! is scheduled to run until the 7th of October at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco.
The show runs roughly 2 ½ hours with a single 15-min intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.