Empire Theatre, Liverpool – until 22 February 2020
Reviewed by Amy Nash
Gloria Estefan is a global powerhouse – you may not know her story, but chances are you’d recognise quite a few of her hits if they came on the radio. While Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine topped the charts with their unique cross-cultural dance vibe in the 80s and 90s, Gloria herself didn’t receive as much recognition from the public in the UK compared to the US and Latin markets. You might think that On Your Feet!’s concept as a jukebox musical focusing on Gloria and Emilio Estefan’s story would struggle when away from home, but the show exploded onto the West End and across the country with its colourful Latin charm. It’s not just a mere rags-to-riches tale, but a brilliant amalgamation of everything that you would hope it could be – heartfelt, passionate and real, while making every Miami Sound Machine bop land perfectly.
All the pieces fall neatly into place. Jerry Mitchell’s direction is sharp and purposeful with not a moment or a performer wasted. Sergio Trujillo’s choreography is awe-inspiring, fusing classic Latin dances with disco and some incredible stunts, which are given more life by Emilio Sosa’s gorgeous, vibrant costumes. David Rockwell’s set design makes dynamic use of the space to transform the stage from Cuba to Miami effortlessly, and the use of framing and lighting to convey Gloria Estefan’s traffic accident was breathtakingly well executed.
And the music? The rhythm is definitely gonna get you, because every single song (including hits like Dr Beat, Conga, 1-2-3 and, of course, Get on Your Feet) is delivered with gusto. Unwaveringly punchy vocals pair beautifully with the on-stage band, who capture every note as though they were the Miami Sound Machine themselves.
The cast is wonderful – Philippa Stefani not only captures Gloria Estefan’s voice and does their hits proud, but she conveys her vulnerabilities and insecurities just as convincingly as her fiery personality. She has fantastic chemistry with George Ioannides, who brings Emilio to the stage with plenty of passion and a killer voice. Hollie Cassar, standing in for Karen Mann, is a scene-stealer as Gloria’s hilariously brazen abuela, and Madalena Alberto delivers a powerful, nuanced performance as her mother. Though the show starts off with a focus on comedy and there is still plenty of fun to be had throughout, what really makes it memorable is the heart beneath the humour. Book writer Alexander Dinelaris pens a show not just about the Miami Sound Machine or the love story of Gloria and Emilio Estefan, but about immigration, intergenerational trauma and keeping a culture alive. On Your Feet! doesn’t ever linger for too long on these issues, but they’re a constant undercurrent in the background, and they make for some welcome depth.
You might think that the appeal of a story like this in the UK might be niche, given how entrenched in its Cuban-American setting it is, but in Liverpool it hit home with the audience. The city was shaped by Irish immigration, after all, and is very proud of its roots – the cheers and applause were substantial during a pivotal scene for Emilio (“Take a good look at my face,” he tells a sceptical record company executive, “because this is what an American looks like!”).
Perhaps On Your Feet! has a unique appeal for audiences not as familiar with all of Gloria Estefan’s music – it shone a spotlight on plenty of incredible songs that weren’t as big in the UK as they should have been. It was a wonderful night of acerbic Latin wit and catchy hits, and we were certainly all on our feet for the encore!