I don’t think much of jukebox musicals. They are musical theatre junk food because they are essentially a lazy exercise. You take a composer, singer or group, open the songbook, and mash up the songs with an original libretto . It’s like one of those old ice cream shops where you mix in ice cream, nuts, M&Ms and other treats on a slab and chow down. It tastes pretty good, but it looks awful. Or, based on the ingredients, vice versa.
Jukebox musicals basically take two forms. In the first, the songs are stuck into the spaces between an original narrative story. This tends to be more successful when the composer did his writing for musical theatre. The “modern” Gershwin musicals My One and Only, Crazy For You and Nice Work If You Can Get It all have their charms because the songs previously functioned as book songs for another story, and because the libretti for these new shows offer a nice combination of Golden Age nostalgia and modern wit. But when the composer is Elvis Presley (All Shook Up) or Abba (Mamma Mia), the result can be pretty insipid. Pop songs are mini-dramas unto themselves; sing ‘em and you’re done. The songs were never meant to service a larger plotline.
The other jukebox musical is the biographical kind, where the songs are arranged in some chronological order with some words to tell the talent’s story. It differs from a musical revue, which serves pretty much the same purpose, because the story is dramatized rather than merely narrated. Jersey Boys starts with a reunion concert after the The Four Seasons have split up, followed by each member of the group telling their story from his own point of view. Beautiful begins with a concert that Carole King gives at the height of her singing career and then flashes back to how it all began. Both of these are jukebox musicals.
So when the curtain rises at the top of On Your Feet to reveal a rocking band, sexy dancers and Gloria Estefan at the height of her career, you pretty much know where this is going. The scenery moves, and we are back in Cuba, where a little girl entertains her uncle with her amazing singing. And we’re off . . .
This means that liking On Your Feet might depend on your own relationship with jukebox musicals. I myself really enjoyed Jersey Boys because it was cleverly staged, the music rocked, and I saw it with my mother who was rocking along with it. I felt less kindly disposed toward Beautiful because, despite its great sets, it stretched my patience in terms of shoving a song into my face to further the plot. (Case in point: in order to insert more songs from the album “Beautiful” into the show after test audiences complained, the creators wrote a scene before Carole moves to California where she says goodbye to all her friends with a song she has just written: “You’ve Got a Friend.” The resulting sing-along felt manipulative rather than emotional.) Plus, Jessie Mueller, who won a Tony for playing Carole King, had moved on, and her replacement was so-so. Oh, and the audience rocking around me was so damn old! I mean, I was only seventeen when I first listened to these songs, right?
On Your Feet benefits from dynamite performances by Ana Villafane as Gloria and Ektor Rivera as her husband, Emilio Estafan, and by book writer Alexander Dinelaris’ heartfelt attempt to focus on the development of Gloria as a star in the context of the struggle of Latino performers to achieve mainstream success in the pop world. The play also touches on biographical dramas in Gloria’s life: her conflict with her mother (a strong Doreen Montalvo) over her career and her marriage, loving and losing her beloved Abuela (Alma Cuervo, always a delight to see), and, most melodramatically, the horrible bus accident that nearly ended her career.
But mostly, the musical chronicles the moments where Gloria’s talent is discovered as a child, nurtured and supported by her abuela, who turns the reins over to the handsome and loving Emilio, who creates a star. The action shifts between dramatic and concert scenes as jukebox musicals do. Dinelaris makes a different choice to not introduce the songs chronologically but to insert them where they best serve his storytelling. In one way, this works to allow a wide variety of Estefan’s better and lesser known songs to be heard. It creaks more when a tune is forced into the capacity of book song, as in “I See Your Smile,” (my very favorite Estefan ballad) which is sung to signal Emilio and Gloria’s growing attraction, or a new power duet sung by Emilio and Gloria’s mother over Gloria’s hospital bed. It’s ironic that I, who have never felt anything unnatural about the musical theatre form, should squirm uncomfortably while two people belt at each other over a woman’s unconscious body. It didn’t matter that the song, written by Estefan’s daughter for this show, was pretty good; it just felt wrong.
The whole thing works better for me in the first act, which takes its time charting Gloria’s beginnings. The scenes don’t feel rushed, and we get some character development and some nice humor. We also get flashbacks to Cuba before Gloria was born to see why her mother soured on show business. (It turns out that mother Gloria almost became the Spanish dubbed voice for Shirley Temple!) Act Two offers the typical rushed jukebox template: crisis/song/crisis/song – over and over – until the final triumphant moment. And then, of course, there’s a megamix to send us bouncing home.
It is slick and well put together, and I was entertained by the performances and the music. (The band is sensational and includes members of the actual Miami Sound Machine.) Gloria Estefan herself is heard before the show, telling us to turn off our phones. It will tour at some point, minus the actual band members but no doubt including that phone reminder, and audiences will bounce along like they did for the Four Seasons and Carole King. And Abba. And Elvis Presley. It’s all musical theatre junk food. It goes down good.
Just don’t make a habit of it.