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Artsmash Critic Tim Smith covers classical music, theater and visual arts in Baltimore and beyond
Theater review:

At the Hippodrome, a propulsive journey through the career of Gloria Estefan in 'On Your Feet'

Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

The years I worked in South Florida happened to coincide with the rapid rise of a Cuban-born singer in Miami named Gloria Estefan.

You couldn’t tune in a pop station on the radio without quickly hearing one of her songs with the vibrant Miami Sound Machine. Her bold move from Latin to English-speaking pop music markets, her injury in a tour bus accident and remarkable recovery — all part of the daily news diet down there.

Everywhere, actually. Estefan became a global phenomenon, an achievement chronicled more or less engagingly in “On Your Feet,” the Broadway show now at the Hippodrome as part of a national tour.

No jukebox musical is ever likely to present fully fleshed-out characters and completely detailed, nonpartisan history. Such shows are, above all, meant to entertain, to awaken and continually feed nostalgia. On those grounds, “On Your Feet,” with a book by Alexander Dinelaris and more than two dozens songs from the Estefan catalog, certainly succeeds.

The ups, downs and ups again in Estefan’s career get their due, often so quickly or dutifully that you don’t get much context. And cliches pop up as often as maracas. But the dialogue also contains some effective humor, which helps make up for structural weaknesses in the show.

To her most committed admirers, Estefan was never just another pop singer. Throughout a Miami concert she gave in the 1990s, I saw people of all ages making an orderly, almost religious-looking procession to the stage, each person bearing a gift to be placed at her feet.

Something of that extra-intense fandom can be gleaned in “On Your Feet,” notably in Act 2 scenes relating to the accident and its aftermath. It turns a little gooey (there’s a reading of get-well letters), but the point comes across.

Something else registers strongly, too. That’s the story of Emilio Estefan, who saw Gloria’s potential and built the Miami Sound Machine to provide liftoff. Emilio ran up against the same sort of resistance that another Cuban-American, Desi Arnaz, faced decades earlier.

Both men heard a version of “Latins can’t do that” — Desi got it from TV executives when his wife, Lucille Ball, wanted him to star with her on “I Love Lucy” (the world would be a poorer place had the big shots prevailed); Emilio battled recording honchos incapable of imagining crossover by Latin musicians.

This part of “On Your Feet” is especially interesting, but, like most of the plot, given little chance for substantive exploration. Instead, the musical gets most of its dramatic mileage out of Gloria’s edgy home life before stardom (caring for an ailing father) and tense relationship with her mother afterward.

All of these story elements are brought to life by well-polished actors who also handle the considerable vocal demands with ease.

A natural, unaffected style allows Christie Prades to convey Gloria’s warmth and strength as a woman, her directly communicative style as a singer. Mauricio Martinez brings a disarming manner to the role of Emilio and reveals a velvety voice that is also capable of considerable power (his account of “Don’t Wanna Lose You” is a high point). Most importantly, the two leads spark genuine chemistry onstage.

Doreen Montalvo does vivid work as Gloria’s mother. Debra Cardona is an endearing presence as the grandmother. Directed by Jerry Mitchell, the rest of the cast proves effective.

The pull of Latin rhythms is superbly provided by a tireless orchestra led by Miami Sound Machine veteran Clay Ostwald.

A sizable ensemble of dancers carries out Sergio Trujillo’s sexy-athletic choreography in fit and fiery fashion. The show runs out of different salsa steps pretty early on, but there is no drop in the energy behind them. And the periodic appearance of a very young conga practitioner (Jordan Vergara on opening night) provides a fun jolt.

Strong production values count for a lot, especially Kenneth Posner’s lighting, which adds a great deal of atmosphere to David Rockwell’s fluid scenic design. Emilio Sosa’s colorful costumes also shine; Emilio Estefan’s oh-so-’80s shorts get an extra laugh.

Speaking of reactions, the thread of immigration issues running through the show also resonates. When Emilio goes face-to-face with a record company exec and says, “This is what an American looks like,” the message may be heavy-handed as can be. But these days, it sure does hit home — that line sparked quite an ovation from the opening night crowd.

As in all jukebox musicals, there’s a pumped-up mini-concert at the end of “On Your Feet,” which, of course, is a sure way to get the audience on its feet.


If you go

"On Your Feet" runs through June 10 at the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St. Tickets are $42.50 to $199. Call 800-982-2787, or go to ticketmaster.com.


tim.smith@baltsun.com

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