Imagine a “Funny Girl” in which Nicky Arnstein is Fanny Brice’s talented, hard-working manager-collaborator. That plot would pretty much sum up the love story and rise to fame of Emilio and Gloria Estefan in their new jukebox musical, “On Your Feet!,” which opened Thursday at the Marquis Theatre.
Or, imagine the musical “Beautiful” if Carole King’s first husband, the late Gerry Goffin, had not been seriously bipolar. Instead of a bad husband, what “On Your Feet!” gives us is a bad bus wreck about half-way through act two. The difference between a husband and a bus wreck is that the one usually lasts much longer, making for many more twists in the plot. If placed much earlier in the show,
Also, book writer Alexander Dinelaris (Oscar winner for “Birdman”) and director Jerry Mitchell cut the emotional pull of this eleven-o’clock musical moment by turning it over to Estefan’s fans, who read/sing get-well letters to their idol. As self-promoting hagiographies go, “On Your Feet!” makes “Trump: The Art of the Deal” look downright modest.
The big conflict in the Estefans’ life story, of course, is not their romance and marriage but how, as Cuban-Americans, they broke through the glass ceiling in the music business. As with Gloria’s recovery, the couple’s rise to fame is sure and steady – at least as told here – and is reduced to snippets of dialogue between Emilio (the low-energy Josh Segarra) and a variety of suits who say things like “Madonna doesn’t have this kind of contract” and “How do you sit down with balls that size?” Part of the problem is that getting a record distributed and promoted is not a focused dramatic event like Fanny Brice making her Ziegfeld debut in “Funny Girl” or Gypsy Rose Lee stripping in “Gypsy.”
Mitchell and Dinelaris try hard to turn the Estefans’ behind-the-scenes business savvy into a live event. Actually, they stage a series of performances that Gloria gives to promote the single “Conga,” taking her to a bar mitzvah, a Shriners convention, and a big Italian wedding. Why not include a big gay disco while she’s at it? As Gloria, Ana Villafane perfectly replicates the star’s vocals, right down to the melisma and catch in her throat. But this “Conga” number is silly when it needs to be thrilling, and choreographer Sergio Trujillo makes it worse by sending his dancers up the aisles of the Marquis Theater. Want to be part of a conga line on Broadway? If not, “On Your Feet” is the one show where aisle seats should be avoided.
Sometime before the bus crash, Dinelaris inserts a flashback to Emilio’s childhood where he and his family leave Cuba for Madrid, and his parents then send him off alone to America. It’s possible that starting with his story, instead of Gloria’s, would have given the show more of a dramatic arc. In many ways, the real-life Emilio Estefan is a latter-day Desi Arnaz. “On Your Feet!” gives a nod to this comparison by making fun of Emilio’s thick accent, recalling Ricky Ricardo’s mangled English on “I Love Lucy.” What was mildly funny in the 1950s is really lame today.