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Review: 'On Your Feet!,' the Gloria and Emilio Estefan story, sets rhythms in irresistible motion

Review: 'On Your Feet!,' the Gloria and Emilio Estefan story, sets rhythms in irresistible motion
The "On Your Feet!" touring cast with Christie Prades, foreground center, as Gloria Estefan. (Matthew Murphy)

Here in America, where “anything’s possible” is essentially a national motto, we love self-made men and women, and one would be hard-pressed to name better examples than Gloria and Emilio Estefan.

As a bonus, their story comes with a ready-made score: the string of hits they notched in the 1980s with Miami Sound Machine and continued into the ’90s with Gloria’s solo career. “Conga.” “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You.” “Turn the Beat Around.” “Oye Mi Canto.”

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Well, what you’ve got there are the makings of a musical, “On Your Feet!,” which is traveling post-Broadway, stopping at the Pantages in Hollywood this month and Segerstrom Center in Costa Mesa in August.

The Estefans’ story actually charts a double rise: their path to all-but-unheard-of crossover success, then Gloria’s determined return to wholeness after back injuries sustained in a 1990 tour bus accident. Although that’s where the stage script ends, the couple’s own story continues with their development as multifaceted businesspeople whose enterprises include record production, music publishing, restaurants, hotels and minority ownership in the Miami Dolphins.

“On Your Feet!” itself is an example of the Estefans’ business savvy. They pitched their life story to producers and theater operators the Nederlander Organization, and here we are, with the Estefans co-producing. The script is by Alexander Dinelaris, the Oscar-winning co-screenwriter of 2014’s “Birdman,” and the stage team is led by director Jerry Mitchell (“Legally Blonde,” “Kinky Boots”) and choreographer Sergio Trujillo (“Jersey Boys,” “Summer”).

At its best, “On Your Feet!” explodes off the stage. The first half culminates with Miami Sound Machine’s smash success in 1985 with the song “Conga,” and that’s precisely what the cast proceeds to do, right off the stage and up the aisles.

That song is a signature example of Miami Sound Machine and the Estefans’ style: a fusion of pulsating Cuban rhythms and sleek American pop. And that sound is, in turn, a wonderful metaphor for what the Estefans have achieved: blending their homelands — the one they were born into and the one they’ve embraced — in ways that pay homage to each while further diversifying and enlivening the world.

As delivered in more than two dozen songs from throughout the Estefans’ career (and an easily noticeable new one), that sound also gives Trujillo plenty of opportunity to unleash his insanely talented dancers in ways that send pelvises moving in directions that seem to defy anatomical construction and feet flying in so many directions at once that the human eye can’t take it all in.

Portraying Gloria, Christie Prades, a swing and cover in the Broadway production, speaks and sings in a dusky voice remarkably similar to the one that sold 100 million albums. Mauricio Martínez, who played Emilio at the end of the New York run, possesses a tenor capable of soft introspection or ceiling-scorching power. Together, they take this show’s already considerable sex appeal off the charts. A fiery presence unto herself, Nancy Ticotin blazes through the story as Gloria’s formidable mother.

As for downsides, the main one is that, for all the inherent drama in the Estefans’ life story, it plays out in Dinelaris’ script in the time-worn ways of stage and screen musical biographies.

So once Gloria’s family has fled Cuba, where her father was imprisoned post-revolution for being a policeman under the Batista government, the fledgling singer-songwriter — guitar always at the ready — sends her Miami neighborhood into paroxysms of dance. She nervously sits at an electric piano to introduce her music to Emilio, leader of what was then the Miami Latin Boys, and a couple of verses later has so transfixed him that he’s primed to remake the group with her as lead singer. Emilio, frustrated that stations won’t play their songs, sends the band into the streets with giveaway copies and, moments later, the group is heard playing on a radio.

You get the idea. Such clichés are perhaps necessary to compact storytelling, but they flatten out and homogenize a remarkable story.

The action unfolds on what is essentially a concert stage framed with rotating lights. To this, set designer David Rockwell adds a scrim and several moving, rotating panels. Onto these are projected scene-setting images of streetscapes, concert posters and even fireworks for the moment it becomes inevitable that Gloria and Emilio will marry (projections by Darrel Maloney). From time to time, the backdrop disappears altogether to reveal the high-energy onstage band, of which five of the 10 members are Miami Sound Machine veterans.

For all its energy, “On Your Feet!” — which ended its Broadway run 11 months ago after a not quite 23-month run — is most engaging when it quiets long enough to offer true glimpses into the Estefans’ lives: the way they’ve always worked in tandem or Gloria’s affectionate habit of teasing Emilio about his pronounced accent.

They’re an all-American story for the ages.

Mauricio Martínez as Emilio Estefan, foreground left, and Christie Prades as Gloria Estefan in "On Your Feet!"
Mauricio Martínez as Emilio Estefan, foreground left, and Christie Prades as Gloria Estefan in "On Your Feet!" (Matthew Murphy)

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

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‘On Your Feet!’

Where: Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays; ends July 29

Tickets: $39-$145

Info: (800) 982-2787, www.HollywoodPantages.com/OnYourFeet

Also: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: Aug. 21-Sept. 2; 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays

Tickets: $29-$119

Info: (714) 556-2787, www.SCFTA.org

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

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