'On Your Feet!' shows heart amid the opening stumbles - The Buffalo News

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'On Your Feet!' shows heart amid the opening stumbles

Well, the rhythm is certainly going to get you. How could it not.

“On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio & Gloria Estefan” opened Saturday night at Shea’s with a hesitant but heartfelt production, and if does anything for you, it should make you move. That’s always been the Estefans’ gift: incredible Latin music, filling Miami clubs in the late-1970s, American aerobics classes in the ’80s, and career-achievement celebrations around the world ever since.

Gloria Estefan’s story is special for many reasons. The same can be said for this production, as it marks the official launch of the show’s first national tour following a nearly two-year Broadway run.

The cast, crew and creative team have been in town for four weeks to fine-tune the show. Gloria and Emilio, who are also producers of the show, have been here since last week. It’s an exciting time to have a theater ticket in Buffalo.

This being a new production, however, technical difficulties aren’t out of the question. One song into the performance on Saturday’s opening (following a preview Friday night), the stage manager announced a momentary pause to let crew members clean up broken glass from a fallen set piece. These things happen, and it was a swift and professional interruption.

Creatively speaking, though, the show suffers from more interruptions than broken glass.

The first act tells of young Gloria’s accidental American Dream. A 19-year-old songwriter and psychology student from Havana, Gloria never intended to become a performer — until handsome Emilio walks in with an invitation to sing with his band, the Miami Latin Boys. One thing leads to another and the group — now the Miami Sound Machine — takes over Miami and the rest of America.

The show does a serviceable job laying out Estefan’s hard-earned rise to fame. Like a satisfying sequel, it relies mostly on her earlier years to contextualize the famous eras that we remember. But personal relationships feel rushed, or worse, referential. Few of Gloria’s ballads, with either Emilio or her father, pay off emotionally.

The show moves much more smoothly with the big production numbers in the club, where an energetic ensemble shows off choreographer Sergio Trujillo’s lively work, and an incredible orchestra featuring members of the actual Miami Sound Machine plays on stage. Anytime they appear, the show feels alive.

But an inspiring story doesn’t always translate to riveting storytelling. Despite many laughs, Alexander Dinelaris’s book leans heavily on melodrama, which director Jerry Mitchell layers with plenty of soap. As biographical jukebox musicals go, this is a Lifetime TV movie in all its unapologetic glory, and much of the first act feels as though we’ve walked in on a scene in-progress.

A talented cast keeps things fresh amid these pitfalls—and the female leads are especially fierce. Christie Prades is a youthful, persistent Gloria. She channels the Gloria we know: a passionate Cubano, a talented musician, and a caring humanitarian.

Prades is present in Gloria’s shoes more consistently than Mauricio Martínez is in Emilio’s. He plays the suave but smart producer like an archetype. I found his need for Gloria clear but less so his connection.

As Gloria’s mother Gloria and abuela Consuelo, Nancy Ticotin and Alma Cuervo are electrifying. I wish we had more time with young Gloria and her elders. They are the more compelling heart of this story.

Two young performers made a huge impact at Saturday’s performance (they rotate at select shows): Amaris Sanchez as Little Gloria and Kevin Tellez as Young Emilio and other roles. They are often the highlights in their scenes, and exhibit the soul and sparks of their characters’ eventual legacies.

In an uneven evening, their performances remind of us the youthful spirit that still sings and dances in the Estefans’ enduring music.

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Theater Review
“On Your Feet!”
2.5 stars  (Out of four)
Jukebox musical about Emilio and Gloria Estefan, running through Sept. 30 in Shea’s Performing Arts Center. Tickets are $37 to $87. Call 847-1410 or visit sheas.org.

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