Jukebox musicals are as much part of Broadway history as those with original scores. 1977’s “Beatlemania” played over 1,000 performances on Broadway and was considered a bonafide success – making way for later modern hits like “Mamma Mia,” “Jersey Boys,” and this year’s “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations,” which was recently nominated for 12 Tony Awards.
However, there are bound to be hits and misses over the years. Many critics would even argue the popularity of the sub-genre signifies the death of musical theatre. While the birth of new musicals are important for the art-form, that should not dismiss the pure fun a jukebox musical can be.
Enter “On Your Feet!” – the biographical musical about the musical journey of Gloria and Emilio Estefan. This energetic jukebox musical flaunts no pretenses and it doesn’t have to. It’s a musical that was created to entertain – and The Gateway’s new production, running May 8 through May 25 to kick off the theater’s 70th anniversary season, does just that and more.
In Sarah Larson’s 2014 The New Yorker article “Let’s Rock: In Defense of Jukebox Musicals,” she divides the jukebox into two categories. One is a celebration of popular music without a distinct plot while the other is a biographical musical. “On Your Feet!” is the latter – diving into Ms. Estefan’s humble beginnings in Miami and following her climb to stardom.
From the beginning of the first act it’s clear as an audience that we’re going to get an inside look at Ms. Estefan’s career as opposed to a concert-like production. All of the hits are there, but they are cleverly dispersed through the show as devices to present the various points of the singer’s career. In many ways the musical follows the classic “A Star is Born” format. The book is flawed at times – relying on dialogue to provide a laundry list of exposition – but its clear the show’s creators had their focus on the music and choreography over plot.
And there is no denying this is a star vehicle with Gloria as the heart and soul of the show. Marina Pires (“On Your Feet!” First National Tour) glows with charisma and star presence from the moment she transforms from young Gloria – played on opening night by the talented Olivia Hyl – into the young woman destined to top billboard charts. A pure triple-threat, Ms. Pires embodies the humane warmth of Ms. Estefan while belting out her signature songs to perfection and executing the electrifying choreography created by the world renowned Maria Torres.
She is well matched with Eddie Noel (“On Your Feet!” First National Tour), playing Emilio Estefan. The chemistry between the two actors is evident throughout the musical as they face various uphill battles as well as glorious successes together. Mr. Noel’s accent drops occasionally in a song or two, but his smooth, yet full voice makes up for it. Together they skillfully portray Gloria and Emilio’s relationship over the years.
Although the musical centers around Gloria and Emilio’s careers, the central focus of the show is family. Karmine Alers portrays Gloria’s tough as nails mother, dealing with an internal struggle of seeing her daughter live the life she once dreamed of. She shines in her big number “Mi Tierra” – showcasing her radiant vocals and skillful dancing ability.
Meanwhile, Sydia Cedeño (“On Your Feet!” Broadway and First National Tour) steals practically every scene she’s in as Consuelo, Gloria’s eccentric Abuela. Although she’s primarily in scenes depicting Gloria’s younger days, every time she popped back into the story she had the audience in stitches with the execution of her cheeky dialogue.
With Gloria’s family life often in the spotlight, the show displays a sentimentality that leaps beyond the expectations of a jukebox musical. In one of the most emotional scenes, Ms. Pires’ emotional connection to the character is on full display as she reacts with incredible depth to an imagined serenade from her father, who suffered from multiple sclerosis, in “When Someone Comes Into Your Life.” Ruben Flores’ heartfelt execution of the song is a standout moment.
“On Your Feet!” is a great example of a show that needs a strong ensemble and Gateway’s casting choices provided. The chorus works together like a well-oiled machine – dancing up and storm and providing beautiful vocals. Many actors were featured in cameos – giving them individual moments to shine by inhabiting the people in the Estefans’ world.
As expected with a Gateway production, the behind-the-scenes craftsmanship was impressive. The use of scenic projections transports the audience from Miami to Gloria’s concerts and beyond. Meanwhile, shuttered panels add dimension to the stage and adapt well to the show’s many locations. The pitch-perfect pit is positioned upstage and cleverly revealed during Gloria’s concert scenes.
Additionally, the costumes on display become characters of their own. We are able to witness Gloria emerge from a naive girl in the Miami Latin boys in plain blouses and jean capris to a full-blown star in her iconic glitzy and sensual outfits.
Whether you’re a devoted Gloria Estefan fan or a casual music lover, this production will leave you feeling euphoric from the spectacle and heart on The Gateway’s stage. Although the Estefans’ moved away from the spotlight over the years, this musical documents how much the couple and their music paved the way for Latino artists trying to break into English spoken music.
Jukebox musical or not, “On Your Feet!” is a treat for Long Island theatre goers that will without a doubt have you on your feet singing and dancing.
“On Your Feet!” runs from May 8 through May 25 at The Gateway – 215 South Country Rd, Bellport, NY 11713. Tickets are $59, $71, $89. Call (631) 286-1133 or visit The Gateway website for tickets and additional information.