REVIEW – On Your Feet – Broadway San Jose

Broadway San Jose’s On Your Feet; The Emilio and Gloria Estefan Broadway Musical, exploded in to San Jose Tuesday with a spectacle and a half of dizzying lights, electric hip-twisting dance, percussions for days, proper diva vocals, and a story that was both informative and entertaining. Foot- tapping throughout appeared a standard audience requirement as was the humming of tunes post-performance with some patrons finding it impossible not to sing along DURING the show. While the display didn’t get me on my feet at the end, there’s no denying that this is an entertaining night and yes, ultimately… (spoiler alert) the rhythm got even  me.

Now, I’m a child of the 80’s and while I never owned a Miami Sound Machine album, I didn’t frequent dance clubs of any kind, and I never saw them in concert, I was legitimately surprised by the number of songs I knew and knew WELL; proof that you can’t deny the power and presence of this chart topping, cross-over, woman-fronted group.  The music alone is justification for this new artistic treatment. Add to that the love story and the immigration story and you’ve got a plot even more worthy of this stage. The story IS good.  It is also, in this case, a very loud one.

Indeed, the biggest challenge of the production for me was the volume. Ridiculously loud. The only show I can remember being louder in this space was American Idiot. So… yeah… it unfortunately destroyed a lot of my love for this show despite the band, cast and production values being largely impressive. On the list of unexpected things I discovered about myself while sitting in the audience – my love of Congo drums seems genuinely limitless. I could not get enough of the beats – I just wish they had been taken down several decibels.

Our Gloria is outstanding. Her voice is excellent and her moves are solid. She appears to be having a great time (as does the entire ensemble) and is 100% believable as her real life counterpart in sound, attitude and looks. Emilio has wicked moves too, lovely chemistry with Gloria and I loved his character choices and delivery. That said, I felt the songs his character was given weren’t great (or that necessary to be honest) and his voice – while strong and rich in tone – appeared to have less range than was required to fully compete with Gloria’s powerhouse vocals. Gloria’s mom was extremely likable even as a less likeable character and I thought her portrayal emphasized a dynamic, intense complexity rarely depicted on stage. Not a definitively good or bad, black or white type of supporting role, but rather a character that takes us on a significant journey of change that never once unbelievably betrays the roots of a character’s emotional foundation or upstages the lead focus.  It should be stated that this is a very pro grandmother show as abuelita is a major fan favorite. She brings a lovely, light, and humorous element to the show and is relatable and excruciatingly charming.  The rest of the cast is a hardworking ensemble who delight in their many roles and (I know this will sound super weird/wrong) who also thankfully look like people with dance skills that just happen to go up to 11 and not like dancers costumed and directed to look their parts. This ensemble’s star dance status didn’t conflict with the realism of the era, the stories being told, or the dramatic and comedic requirements of any of their multiple characters.

Not only was the talent there, the choreography was creative and contagious. Movement plays an integral part in this show to the point of it becoming its own character. It effectively supports all the parts of this story emotionally as well as culturally and in some scenes seems to transmute into colorful backdrops serving a more practical purpose as backdrop.  There was a clear and appreciated distinction between the dances performed in production/concert numbers and when it was being used to enhance the ambiance, emulate a mood or move the story forward in some way.

This detailed and intentional distinction was also made in costuming  which was exceptional; perfectly replicating famous looks from 80-90’s album covers/TV appearances in addition to whisking us away to 1950’s/60’s Cuba. Were it not an egregious violation of theater etiquette and a basic crime punishable by death in some states, I would have started a Pinterest Board in real time for all the awesome looks created through the show’s clothing and accessories (hair and hats). Visually great fun and maybe my favorite part!

Projections and scenery seamlessly transitioned us from various locations and times and this transportive quality (achieved by all the technical elements) in combination with the music definitely had me wishing for an onsite travel agent at intermission to help book a Cuban vacation or at the very least opportunity to sign up for local Rhumba/Mambo/Salsa lessons.

Gloria and Emilio are from the get go portrayed as strong individuals who inspire each other deeply. Their passion and goals are irrefutably aligned resulting in power couple status, and while there’re moments of inequality or perceived inequality (Emilio can be kind of a hard-ass at times and Gloria takes some time to come into her own and stand up to those in her life who push and pull her), I think ultimately we see they take turns driving their singular vision. Yes, there is a lot of machismo on display (admirable, funny and a tad uncomfortable in places) and Emilio certainly skates the line between pushing someone to be their best, supporting them and celebrating their talents and using someone or pushing them TOO far but in the end there is nothing but love fueling that fire.

Particularly enjoyable was the demonstration of the mutual love and stubbornness of this couple and how they navigate the music industry together. Similar to Beautiful and Memphis, the themes of how to shake up, skirt around, stand up to, and overcome a plethora of no’s and conservative thinking  that plague the music industry are good reminders that talent does not equal success and there is a serious craft to producing/getting produced. The scenes of them on-the-scene are some of the most memorable moments of the show for me and where we really see how well they are matched.

Showcasing fierce ambition, genuine tenacity, passion, and strength of an emotional, physical and spiritual nature, this show is way more layered than I expected it to be and I appreciated that. I hate to beat a dead Congo drum, but I just wish the story weren’t told so loudly. In the end, the good was good enough to overlook all of the smaller flaws hidden in the pacing and completeness of each characters’ arc, I just hope the volume and balance issue was a fluke and a one time issue. So, “Here We Are”… 3 ½ jewels out of 5 in the review tiara for a high energy, victorious, up beat look what it takes to achieve the “American Dream” told with talent that turns the beat around and on its damn head more than a few times. On Your Feet plays through October 14th at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts in Downtown San Jose.  

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