The story of Emilio (Georgie Ioannides) and Gloria Estefan (Christie Prades), as On Your Feet! is subtitled, is a good one but their adversities aren’t far removed from anyone else who had doors closed, proverbially and literally, by various record labels because they wouldn’t conform to their pre-fabricated models of what they believed the general public was likely to enjoy listening to. But it may be easier to get a following now than it was then, in these days of YouTube celebrities and people with substantial numbers of Instagram followers.
The closest thing to an antagonist this show has comes in the form of Gloria Fajardo (1930-2017) (Madalena Alberto), who threatens not to speak to her namesake daughter again if her younger daughter Rebecca (Francesca Lara Gordon) is taken on the road with the Estefans and their band, the Miami Sound Machine. All is forgiven at some point as they do indeed resume communications – it’s hardly the stuff of Ike Turner over at Tina: The Tina Turner Musical.
The show doesn’t go as far into Estefan’s career as it might have done – Estefan was inducted in 2011 into the Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame, and I thought it would end there with a celebratory happy ending. Instead the narrative stops in 1991, when she performed ‘Coming Out of the Dark’ at the American Music Awards, having survived a road traffic collision in March 1990 and undergoing a protracted period of rehabilitation.
That is not to say that the audience is necessarily denied twenty years (or more) of her songs – it does feel like a complete story, although I suspect some of Estefan’s fans will doubtless be a tad disappointed at her later singles and albums weren’t covered here. There is some ‘triumph over adversity’ to speak of: in the struggle to assimilate into American society, these Cubans find at one point that their music is ‘too Latino’ for radio stations with majority white American audiences, and ‘too American’ for Spanish language stations.
While knowledge is gained about what character traits Emilio has, that doesn’t add up to character development. His grasp of American English, for instance, is portrayed as – well, diabolical – something which the audience is expected to laugh at. Forgive me for being a spoilsport, but I find that difficult, having long since learned not to laugh at someone who talks in broken English, if only because they know another language.
The show is, by and large, very appealing to its target audience. A ten-piece band directed by Clay Ostwald (an actual veteran of the Miami Sound Machine) is sometimes visible on stage (always good to see) and the lighting design (Kenneth Posner) is extraordinary throughout, as if the lights have a choreography of their own. The celebrations are justified – this is a couple who held their nerve when pretty much the entire music industry was telling them they wouldn’t be a success. But is there a bit too much exposition and not enough dramatization? A lot of details are spoken about in conversation but are not actually seen on stage, a point underlined during a flashback scene in which the older Gloria belts out a song with an assured confidence.
The London Coliseum, alas, is too big a venue for this show. Further, the enjoyment of certain songs is curtailed by crowbarring bits of narrative into them, disrupting the flow of the tune’s rhythm before resuming once more until the next interruption, and so on. That said, it’s an enthusiastic show and one I’m pleased to have seen.