When you're choreographic whiz Sergio Trujillo (Jersey Boys, Memphis) who needs tap shoes? A chorus line wearing huaraches can slap out salsa rhythm even better. And does it ever in this high-energy, hip-shaking jukebox ode to Gloria and Emilio Estefan and the phenomenal Miami Sound Machine. Act I ends with their first international breakout hit, “Conga,” and the dancers strut down the aisle of the Hobby Center in joyous parade mode, only one of the many infectious highs in On Your Feet! The lows come in predictable fashion whenever Alexander Dinelaris's book turns to family jealousy (Gloria and Mom), dying Pa, or the well-trod path through a bit of toil and personal cost to fame and fortune.
But the savvy makers of this colorful bio (director Jerry Mitchell, set designer David Rockwell, costumer Emilio Sosa, lighting guru Kenneth Posner) use every trick in their arsenal to keep things up and peppy. Watch the dull backdrop fade into Technicolor sunset, see how those shuttered set pieces glide smoothly to bring forth another scene, gaze into the lights that rim the proscenium and turn the place into a disco. This is slick Broadway, wondrous showbiz sleight-of-hand.
Perhaps the greatest magic feat of all is the dapper performance by Mauricio Martinez, as Emilio, Gloria's guru, mentor, manager, husband, love of her life. You may think the show's about Gloria (the electrifying Christie Prades) and her rise to fame, which of course it is, but sharing the spotlight at all times is suave Martinez. Does he share it, or does he steal it? Volatile, ambitious, smart and loyal, with the greatest pair of legs to rival any male dancer at the Houston Ballet, Martinez literally sambas away with the musical. His husky voice practically purrs. His Emilio is one smooth operator with undeniable star wattage. Instinctively realizing young Gloria's latent talent, he steers her toward international stardom, nurturing her songs and shaping them into crossover successes. He's a velvet Svengali, and never once do we doubt his deep love for her.
Granted, this doesn't make for the most dramatic plot, so the conflict springs from whether their “new” sound, redolent of Cuba, can infiltrate the very white pop music establishment. In a spirited montage, they take their sound to the people, where the clamor is so great that the execs have got to listen.
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Estefan's personal history is inherently dramatic – let's not forget that bus accident at the height of the group's fame that leaves her paralyzed – but this musical is much too spirited and feel-good to let that stand in the way. The family drama is massaged (Mom comes back to the fold) and the show ends on a personal high at the American Music Awards, where Gloria makes a triumphant return.
All her greatest hits are sprinkled throughout (“Rhythm Is Gonna Get You,” “Turn the Beat Around,” “Anything for You,” “Live for Loving You”), but it's the energetic chorus line and spicy orchestra that reverberate and lift this somewhat typical showbiz fare into the realm of delight.
To paraphrase that classic commercial, You don't have to be Latin to like On Your Feet! They want you to dance in the aisles. And who could possibly resist, so long as Martinez leads.
On Your Feet! continues through November 26 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For information, call 713-315-2525 or visit thehobbycenter.org. $35 to $175.