3/6/2020 ON YOUR FEET! Aurora Theatre
RHYTHM IS GONNA GET YOU
Let me start with a confession. Beginning in the mid-1980’s, I went “off” popular music, sticking with musicals, classics (both oldies and honest-to-Bach Classical), and old folkies (Tom Paxton, Steve Goodman, and Phil Ochs dominate my Alexa playlists to this day). All this is to say I am now and have always been ignorant of the “song book” of Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine.
So, even though I braved Friday’s Presidential Motorcade Traffic Tie-ups to wend my way to the Aurora’s production of On Your Feet: The Story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan, I went with mixed expectations. Sure, I expected the usual creative energy of every show produced at the Aurora and directed by Justin Anderson; I also expected the score to be an endurance slog. I expected to spend this morning writing my usual “Not My Cup of Tea” dismissal of the whole thing.
One of the great joys of my theatre-going life is when my expectations are completely upended, when a show grabs me from the start and doesn’t let go until my arthritic knees don’t stop me from jumping (ish) to my feet at the end. This is a wonderful musical, alive with energy, sparkling with color and movement, filled with earworm songs, and, most important, bursting at the
seams with heart and talent: raw talent in the person of Maria Bilbao, whose appeal drives home the appeal of Ms. Estefan. The fact that I have Alexa playing an Estefan sampler for me as I write this is totally because Ms. Bilbao captured my head, my heart, and, most importantly, my ear.
On Your Feet! Is part bio-musical, part cover-cast concert, with wildly vivid production numbers interspersed with lively scenes from the Estefan’s life and marriage and career. We meet Gloria at a young age, singing a phone message to her father, a soldier in Viet Nam; we follow her first “audition” for Emilio Estefan’s group, find early success and romance, then burst forth with rapid success and fame. The second Act shows us the devasting accident that shattered her spine and would have ended her career, if not for her determination to “come back,” enduring months of agonizing physical therapy in her quest for recovery. And we end with that comeback at the American Music Awards, a mere 10 months after her accident.
Gloria’s story is one of talent, of grit, of survival, the story of a strong (and stubborn) woman who “takes no prisoners” in her battle for success. It is also the story of her mother, Gloria Fajardo, an equally strong (and stubborn) woman who lost everything in the Cuban revolution: home, career, and eventually husband (a Batista enforcer who fled to America and became a soldier in Viet Nam, returning with debilitating agent-orange bred MS). She considers Emilio to be an opportunistic invader stealing her family, a rift that is not bridged until that fateful accident.
But this is just as much Emilio’s story. He recognizes Gloria’s talent as both a songwriter and a performer and is largely (at times cruelly) responsible for pushing her to success, sometimes risking everything in bold-stroke gambles. At one point, a producer asks him “How can you possibly sit down with balls that big?” Sometimes, he comes across as more concerned with the success and money than with the woman and the music. But he never lets us doubt his devotion to Gloria. It helps that he comes across as endearingly dorky at their first meeting.
But first and foremost, this is about the music, about the hits (“Conga” penetrated even my pop music defenses and was really the only number semi-familiar to me, apart from her cover of Robert Knight’s “Everlasting Love”), the ballads, the Spanish-Language early songs. It even includes a new song with music written by the Estefans’ daughter Emily (“If I Never Got to Tell You”). Every song is a gem, and every song is a monument to the talents of the Estefans.
Director Justin Anderson and Music Director Ann-Carol Pence have delivered their expected production values, a staging that flies by at the speed of sound, a sound that flows harmonically and rapturously throughout**. Choreographer Chani Maisonet showcases the youth and ability of the large ensemble, and the production numbers dazzle with energy and precision. Set and lights and sound and costumes (Tanya Orellana, Mary Parker, Anna Lee, and Alan Yeong) perfectly set the stage, the mood, the balance, the appeal. Every physical and technical aspect of this production dazzles with color and light and bottomless creativity.
And the cast really brings it on. Besides the remarkable Maria Bilbao (certainly on track for the best musical performance of the season), Max J. Cervantes (as Emilio), Arusi Santi (as Gloria’s damaged father), Felicia Hernandez (as her Abuela), and especially Lilliangina Quiñones (as Gloria’s mother), all bring their “A Game,” creating characters who vividly orbit Ms. Bilbao, memorable versions that reflect the best of their real-life counterparts. Add two charming and talented younger performers to play Gloria and Emilio as children, and to play their own children (Chiara Sofia Bulkin and Aubrey Chrisopoulos, Isaac Agular and Jaycee Villalobos – no hint in the program who actually went on Friday night) and an ensemble of almost twenty, and you’ve got a stage full of talent that truly hits every note, every step, every character perfectly.
So, am I sucker for rhythm, for an infectious melody, for a vivid portrayal of a strong and talented woman? You bet I am. There is (apparently) nothing like a well-written, well-produced musical to open my eyes (and ears) to pop music I never knew I liked.
I truly loved every minute of this show. It had me on my feet!
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #ATOnYourFeet)
** Pay special attention to rapturously staged and elegantly costumed “Dream Ballet” during Gloria’s long surgery; one of my favorite moments in the show.