BWW Review: Rhythm is Gonna Get You ON YOUR FEET! at PPAC

BWW Review: Rhythm is Gonna Get You ON YOUR FEET! at PPAC

If you notice more smiling faces "downcity" this week, chances are you've spotted audience members fresh from a showing of On Your Feet! at the Providence Performing Arts Center. This fun, thoroughly enjoyable production stylishly recounts the behind-the-music story of Gloria and Emilio Estefan as told through the legendary songbook they created with the Miami Sound Machine. These joyous dance rhythms, uplifting melodies, and heartfelt ballads revolutionized the recording industry, and each song featured in the stage musical sounds just as fresh and energized today as the first time its notes floated across radio waves.

The On Your Feet! cast is filled to brimming with a commendable group of singers and dancers who do full justice both to the Estefans' music and to Sergio Trujillo's choreography. Heading the company is Christie Prades, who joins the first national tour after covering the lead role on Broadway. Prades effectively captures the charisma that has endeared Gloria to audiences worldwide for decades, and her vocal performance is spot on from curtain to curtain. She easily holds her own whether crooning the most sensitive of ballads or singing in tandem with the big, brilliant orchestrations of the Miami Sound Machine. Prades also proves a fine actress as she transforms young Gloria from shy, serious scholar to internationally acclaimed pop diva.

Spurring that transformation is Gloria's introduction to Emilio Estefan, played by the charming Mauricio Martínez (another On Your Feet! Broadway alum). Martínez is terrific in this role. He shines both in comic and dramatic scenes, winningly portrays Emilio's dignified and savvy business sense, and brings lovely intonation to each musical number he performs ("Don't Wanna Lose You" is especially touching). Emilio guided Gloria's initial steps into the spotlight, and the pair partnered first professionally, then romantically; Martínez and Prades prove perfectly matched to recreate this love story on stage.

Other company standouts include Jason Martinez as Gloria's father, José. Martinez's scenes establish the early emotional core of On Your Feet!, and his rich singing voice adds real depth and feeling to his every number. Gloria's contentious relationship with her mother, Gloria Fajardo, gives Nancy Ticotin wonderful material to explore both as an actress and a vocalist. Ticotin's gorgeous rendition of "Mi Tierra" is a first-act showstopper.

The spotlight-stealing Alma Cuervo delights as Consuelo, Gloria's unfailingly supportive, big-hearted grandmother. Each one of Cuervo's appearances on stage is a joy. And an enthusiastic ovation must go out to the phenomenal On Your Feet! orchestra. This on-stage band, under the direction of long-time Miami Sound Machine member Clay Ostwald, is a show unto itself and as much a part of the storytelling as any single performer in the cast.

True to jukebox musical form, On Your Feet! depends on the Estefans' prolific songbook to serve the narrative and to define the relationships between characters. Several of Gloria's biggest hits are reinterpreted for this purpose. As a sororal duet, "Anything for You" underscores the close bond Gloria shares with her younger sister, Rebecca; "I See Your Smile" and "Here We Are" tenderly trace the blossoming romance between Gloria and Emilio; and "Live for Loving You" adorably depicts Gloria's gratitude to and enduring connection with Consuleo. The Miami Sound Machine's smash-hit dance numbers "1-2-3" and "Conga" follow the band's rise to stardom, while "Reach" (an anthem Gloria penned with Diane Warren for the 1996 Olympic Summer Games) is here incorporated into Gloria's recovery sequence. A deeply moving new song, "If I Never Got to Tell You," was specially written by Gloria and her daughter, Emily, for this production.

Of course, even the most thorough biographical musical condenses decades' worth of history into roughly two hours of performance time, combining or eliminating events and individuals in order to move the plot forward coherently. If On Your Feet! does have a weak point, it's in pacing this aspect of the production. While the show highlights the Miami Sound Machine's early industry frustrations, a moving series of Estefan/Fajardo family heartbreaks, and Gloria and Emilio's struggles against racial prejudices (both personally and professionally), most of these incidents are taken at a fairly rapid clip. Even the Estefans' family life - including the couple's marriage and the births of their children - is more often implied than shown on stage. Still, in spite of this brevity, the production establishes enough key points to capture interest and tell the story in engaging fashion.

One event On Your Feet! does revisit in depth is the horrific tour bus accident that nearly paralyzed Gloria in 1990. Here, the excellent transition from a high-energy, fast-paced musical extravaganza to the near standstill of a hospital environment provides the actors with space to truly inhabit the moment and delve into the connection between characters. Martínez and Ticotin are especially strong in this scene as they depict a grieving husband and mother totally divorced from the glitter of celebrity. Today's audiences, many years removed from the collision, know and continue to celebrate Gloria's successful recovery, but On Your Feet! recaptures the raw fear and tormenting uncertainty that these very real people experienced in that life-changing moment.

On Your Feet! also packs plenty of pizazz in its visual presentation, with David Rockwell's crafty set design and Darrel Maloney's projections providing atmosphere and smooth transitions. Emilio Sosa's costumes fit each scene flawlessly, from the teenagers' everyday t-shirts and jeans to the dazzlingly sequined stage attire donned by Gloria and the dancers. And Charles G. LaPointe recalls the hairstyling heyday of the 1980s and 90s with snazzy retro wig and hair design.

On Your Feet! The Emilio & Gloria Estefan Broadway Musical plays the Providence Performing Arts Center through Sunday, February 4, 2018. Tickets are available for purchase online at www.ppacri.org, by phone (401) 421-ARTS (2787), or by visiting the box office at 220 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI. Individual ticket prices are $42-89 and group orders (15 or more) may be placed by calling (401) 574-3162.

Pictured: Mauricio Martínez and Christie Prades
Photo by Matthew Murphy

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