Review: On Your Feet! At the Wales Millennium Centre
'On Your Feet!' is an interesting one! A biographical jukebox musical based on the life of Gloria Estefan and her husband Emilio; I must admit I thought this was a surprising choice for a UK run. Speaking with people of varying ages and backgrounds before attending on the night, none of them could name a Gloria Estefan song, least of all me. After reading into it, it sounds as though whilst she has sold over 120 million records worldwide across a 40 year career, her fanbase over here is rather niche - so a slightly risky choice for a musical. Nevertheless, it looked to be a fun, energetic show and I was keen to find out how well her story lent itself to a dramatic adaptation. 'On Your Feet!' proved to be a lively, uplifting musical, but was overall quite patchy and it won't be one that will stick in my mind.
We meet a young Gloria who resides in Miami with her mother, father and sisters having fled revolutionary Cuba. Much of Gloria's time is spent studying and caring for her father, who suffers from multiple sclerosis. Gloria has a passion for singing and she quickly abandons her studies when she meets the charismatic Emilio Estefan, who ropes her into becoming the front-woman in his band, the Miami Sound Machine. Over time, they fall in love and become a force to be reckoned with, determined to succeed in crossing over from the Latin charts to America. They face obstacles along the way to the top, most notably the racism and prejudice from local DJs and record companies refusing to take them seriously.
Philippa Stefani played the lead role as a very cheery and spirited Gloria Estefan. From what I've seen on Youtube of the real Gloria since watching the show, Stefani did her justice, giving a compelling portrayal of Gloria's ambition and tenacity, as well as her more timid and reserved side. George Ioannides as Emilio was very good in his role too, particularly in his more humorous moments.
A couple of the cast members with supporting roles were favourites for me though. Karen Mann as Consuelo provided heaps of comic relief as Gloria’s beloved grandmother; Mann had the audience chuckling every time she was on the stage. But Madalena Alberto as Gloria’s mother (also named Gloria) was the most captivating and talented actress, singer and dancer by a mile. She outshone Gloria, with a much more powerful voice, demonstrating a magnetic stage presence when she came into her own in her flashback sequence. Many of the songs in this musical sounded really samey, pleasant to listen to but nothing that wow-ed me, but Alberto has so much talent that her impassioned performances were riveting enough to keep your eyes glued to her every move.
Her character was the most layered and complex too. She’s full of love for her daughter but harbours a resentment which ultimately pulls them apart for two years. We also see her managing a household whilst struggling to care for her ill partner and later managing through the pain of his death. Maybe a show about her mother would have been better!
Musical director Danny Belton and his band were brilliant and I loved the scenes where you could view the whole band and their instruments in full, slap bang in the centre of the stage. They were exceptional at delivering the Latin pop numbers and punchy Cuban beats with a flawless sound that effectively transported you to another time and place.
"Conga" at the end of Act One was the most exhilarating performance of the night and it had us in stitches when the cast came out into the audience, collecting people to get up and join the conga line. A handful of other upbeat songs really ignited the stage but most of the ballads dragged on and fell flat for me. It seemed if the writers intended us to feel really emotionally invested by just chucking in some sentimental songs, but it just didn’t feel authentic enough - with one exception. During ‘If I Never Got To Tell You’, Ioannides' voice was complemented beautifully by Madalena Alberto as their characters sang about forgiveness and learning to accept and understand each other. ‘Wrapped’ which followed this was my favourite song in this musical, I was engrossed in the beauty of that performance and found it to have a very haunting and serene vibe.
'On Your Feet!' was entertaining and provided us with a fantastic night out, but this musical did not set my world on fire, due to the thin plot and songs which didn't grab me. I didn't become fully absorbed in it, though there were a lot of laughs, delightful choreography and some great vocal performances. I hope this review doesn't come across too negative and I fully appreciate the hard work that goes into all musicals - I also don’t claim to have any hands-on experience or qualifications in musical theatre whatsoever! But opinions are opinions, and I suppose we are all entitled to them. If you're an EsteFAN - I'm sure you will be in your element with this exuberant show.
*Invited to the press night, in return for blog review*
Tickets are still available for this show. Click below to find out what's on at the WMC: