In the first act of the new musical On Your Feet!, Emilio Estefan (played by Josh Segarra) bristles when an oily record executive insists that his band, Miami Sound Machine, won’t appeal to English-speaking audiences unless he makes accommodations: dump the horns, tamp down the percussion, change your name. Emilio responds with an indignant recap of his immigrant story–his family left Cuba for Miami when Emilio was a teen to “build a new life”–and a paean to the American Dream. “You should look very closely at my face,” he says, “because whether you know it or not, this is what an American looks like.”
The applause that follows is a sign that the show–full name: On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan–at least has impeccable timing. It comes to Broadway just months after the U.S. and Cuba reopened relations and amid the strident anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Republican presidential campaign. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to lift On Your Feet! above the conventions of its well-worn genre: the inspirational biomusical.
You know the drill: Shy but talented Miami girl Gloria (Ana Villafañe) meets charismatic bandleader, becomes the group’s lead singer, helps propel it to the top of the Latin charts, then breaks through to become one of the hottest acts of the ’80s. She faces the usual hurdles, among them a dyspeptic mother who resents her success and a tour-bus crash that leaves Gloria with a broken back, necessitating surgery and months of recovery. “Is she a fighter?” asks a doctor. If you need to ask, you don’t belong at the theater.
The show serves mainly as an animated souvenir book for fans, showcasing Estefan hits–“Conga,” “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You”–along with lesser-known ballads and one new song written for the show by Gloria and her daughter Emily. With brisk direction by Jerry Mitchell and hot-wired choreography by Sergio Trujillo, On Your Feet! passes the time easily enough, and newcomer Villafañe gives a fine, fiery performance. But it lacks the grit or nuance of better examples of the genre, like Jersey Boys or Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. Indeed, with its simple, sliding-panel sets, paint-by-numbers dialogue and an audience-participation conga line just before intermission, the show seems less suited to Broadway than to what will surely be a long and fruitful life on the road.
This appears in the November 23, 2015 issue of TIME.
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