Following its American debut in Chicago – and a subsequent Broadway run – back in 2015, the Gloria and Emilio Estefan musical On Your Feet! has congaed across the Atlantic for its West End premiere. The show is playing a limited engagement at the Coliseum before heading out on a nationwide tour.
We first meet Gloria backstage before a big concert in Washington DC in 1990, with Emilio and their son Nayib eagerly waiting for her to step onstage and perform. The action then flashes back to Gloria’s childhood in the 60s, musical even then though having to help her mother with the daily chores; her father is stationed out in Vietnam and she sends him tapes of her singing to try to raise his spirits. Skipping forward a few years, and Gloria is balancing studying to become a psychologist with caring for her father (who is suffering from multiple sclerosis) and still helping her mother around the house, though when her grandma introduces her to Emilio Estefan she’s quickly ingratiated with the Miami Latin Boys – who subsequently change their name to the Miami Sound Machine. At first quite shy, Gloria soon finds her feet, and also finds love when she and Emilio fall for each other. Then it’s just a case of how to hit the big time…
One test of biography jukebox musicals is how much an uninitiated audience member ends up learning about the artist through the course of the show. In this respect, there’s a big tick for On Your Feet!; before seeing the show I knew a handful of Gloria Estefan’s songs and nothing at all about her life, but by the finale I had a much better idea of the key events in her life (as well as her back catalogue!). The most famous songs all come in the first act, which is rather daring as there’s the risk of people switching off once they’ve heard a certain number, but on the whole the order seems to have been pretty well considered – matching either the chronology or the emotion of the moment.
There are a couple of plot strands in Alexander Dinelaris’ book that are rather interesting and could potentially have been developed a bit further, however. The relationship between Gloria and her mother becomes strained when she chooses life with the Miami Sound Machine and, though we learn the reason why, this could be explored a bit more. The resistance encountered by the Estefans as immigrants is incredibly timely, with incidents of xenophobia and racism getting more & more visible all the time, so you feel like the show could have gone a bit further down this avenue; just because it’s largely a show for a fun night out doesn’t mean it can’t tackle some serious subjects – the supportive reaction to Emilio’s line “this is what an American looks like” speaks for itself.
As you might expect, dance plays a big part in the show – Sergio Trujillo’s choreography does well to fill the expansive Coliseum stage, bringing a taste of Cuba to an increasingly grey English summer. Combine this with Jerry Mitchell’s dynamic direction and you have an exciting show indeed! Emilio Sosa’s costume design also deserves a mention, as the company goes through quite a range of different outfits – each adding a splash of extra colour to the scene.
It’s a great ensemble effort, though naturally there are a few standout performances. Madalena Alberto is imperious as Gloria’s mother, and Karen Mann is definitely an audience favourite as grandmother Consuela – rivalled closely by twinkle toes Jonathan Naranjo in his various young boy roles. George Ioannides and Christie Prades are impeccable as Emilio and Gloria Estefan, clearly passionate about telling their story and both boasting glorious vocals; their chemistry is undeniable, and they really bring the show to life.
My verdict? An informative and ultimately entertaining musical that’s a welcome addition to the West End – watch out, because the rhythm will get you!
On Your Feet! runs at the London Coliseum until 31 August 2019. Tickets are available online or from the box office.