A star is born with On Your Feet! — the latest Broadway jukebox musical and one that, opening on the eve of Donald Trump’s Saturday Night Live gig couldn’t be timelier. A biotuner scripted by Alexander Dinelaris (a playwright and one of the three writers on Birdman), On Your Feet! at the Marquis Theatre tells the story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan, children of Cuban immigrants who met, married and built the Miami Sound Machine into a global hitmonster that crossed the rigid boundaries — riding the hyphen, as they used to say — of the pop charts around the world.
There’s a scene early in Act I that is sure to become the show’s most quoted: Facing a record company executive determined to keep exploding star vocalist Gloria in the lucrative but confining ghetto of Latin music, her producer husband Emilio (Josh Segurra, Trainwreck and USA’s Sirens) says, “For fifteen years I’ve worked my ass off and paid my taxes. So, I’m not sure where you think I live… but this is my home. And you should look very closely at my face, because whether you know it or not… this is what an American looks like.” Cue thunderous applause from the audience.
And for good reason. On Your Feet! is every bit as propulsive as the music and the personalities it celebrates. It has the flaws of an authorized biography; it’s worshipful of the central couple who have to fight discrimination, narrow-mindedness and the tyranny of the road but rarely one another. So unlike Jersey Boys, whose plot includes the devastating impact of gambling debt on one member of the Four Seasons, or Beautiful, which navigates the rocky marriage and divorce of Carole King and partner Gerry Goffin, On Your Feet! presents Gloria and Emilio as a passionate united front unblemished by any conflict between them.
However — and it’s a very big however — if Broadway still has the power to create a star, a star is surely born with the Gloria of Ana Villafañe. A newcomer with roots in the same Miami neighborhood as the singer she plays, Villafañe grabs the show and the audience, from her first entrance to her final bow, rarely flagging in energy no matter how high a bar the director Jerry Mitchell and choreographer Sergio Trujillo set for her. The music of the Miami Sound Machine — originally a boy band until Emilio heard the teenage Gloria sing for the first time — merged African and Latin rhythms with the pop and disco sensibility that emerged through the ’70s and 80s, and the result was heard — an danced to, and imitated — everywhere.
That music is persuasively (and percussively) recreated here in orchestrations by the Estefans with Lon Hoyt and Oscar Hernandez, performed by a pounding band and danced by a sexy ensemble dressed to the teeth by costume designer ESosa. Also credit SCK Sound Design for excellent amplification, Kenneth Posner for the mock-stadium lighting and especially David Rockwell, whose sets manage to stay out of the dancers’ way while suggesting innumerable locales.
Villafañe is extremely well supported not only by Segarra, but also by a veteran team that includes Alma Cuervo (The Slap, a.k.a. Pablo) as Gloria’s encouraging grandmother and, especially, Andréa Burns as Gloria’s mother, whose own dreams of stardom apparently were crushed early on. It isn’t until a near-fatal accident that she finally reconciles with the daughter who lived her dream.
As story-telling, On Your Feet! can be as clunkily generic as the title. But there’s a deep well of life in the music that comes across powerfully in the staging — especially in that central supernova performance by a young actress I hope we’ll be seeing a lot more of.