Book by Alexander Dinelaris, music produced and recorded by Emilio and Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine
Palace Theatre, Manchester
28 October 2019 - 2 November 2019; 2hr 30min
Also at Liverpool Empire (17-22 February 2020), Leeds Grand (23-28 March), Newcastle Theatre Royal (14-18 April), Hull New Theatre (27 April-2 May)
Hands up if you’ve never danced to Gloria Estefan's Conga at a wedding (or possibly silver wedding party: the fan base is getting on a bit). No? Shame on you, you need new friends and better parties.
This is the thing about jukebox musicals – it’s all about your own personal reminiscences. You don’t even have to be a fan as such; you just need to have been at the party.
Paradoxically, this creates a problem for On Your Feet!, the musical that tracks the life of Gloria Estefan from her teenage singing and song writing to a courageous comeback after a road accident and life-threatening back surgery.
The gusto of the show, directed by Jerry Mitchell with choreography by Sergio Trujillo, cannot be faulted. A driving latin beat propels everything forward and the whole cast has huge talent and a raw energy that ought to be completely infectious.
But the musical structure of the show doesn’t really reflect the British experience of Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine, so sometimes that connection breaks down. A handful of tours have included the UK, but she has not been a regular here on stage or TV, so the reconstructions of concerts in On Your Feet! don’t strike that many chords with the audience. The atmosphere felt more authentic when Philippa Stefani was belting out numbers at a bar mitzvah, a wedding and a convention of Shriners (a US variation on masons).
Nevertheless, the rhythm was always going to get us. It carried us past the occasional slump in script quality, allowed us to ignore the somewhat flat characterisation of Emilio Estefan (George Ioannides), and distracted from dull and ponderous scene sets.
The music also offered some (but not complete) compensation for the decidedly light touch with which the very real issues that moulded the Estefans were handled. These were two families exiled from Cuba, young people who struggled to find a place between old and new cultures and musicians who were casually compartmentalised and sidelined by the mainstream music industry.
The high point, though, was the strength of the women. And what women! Madalena Alberto as Gloria’s mother was passionate, conflicted, implacable – and, it was finally revealed to Gloria, a potential star in her own right who was thwarted by a domineering father and the Cuban revolution. She came close to stealing the show.
Grandmother Consuelo (Karen Mann) was also a delight, pulling everyone’s strings and urging Gloria on.
But it all comes back to the music. The key question is whether you enjoy the songs you don’t know – the rarely heard ones used to move the story forward?
The answer for me is yes – and that, after all, is what it’s all about.