Tuesday, 29 October 2019

THEATRE REVIEW: On Your Feet - The Palace Theatre, Manchester

As an '80’s child, my teenage years had a formative background soundtrack of the music of Emilio and Gloria Estefan, and I was very excited to revisit the popular, lively and memorable music of the Miami Sound Machine. A packed, opening night audience at the Palace Theatre sat in excited anticipation. And they weren’t disappointed

Act 1 sprang into life like a fabulous firework display with a stunning Cuban band on stage decorated by lithe Cuban dancers setting the time, the place. The sound quality was superb. Nothing beats live music and the thrill of the physical proximity or a big sound and lots of live players (a 7 piece band led by MD Danny Belton) filled the auditorium with the thrilling energy and sound of Cuban music with an authentic recreation of the Estefan sound. The rhythm was gonna get us whether we liked it or not, from the outset.

The story has been written around the famous songs of MSM which is a difficult task to fit a coherent and chronological narrative around existing music and make it work, believably .For the most part Alexander Dinelaris’ book works extremely well charting the meeting and backgrounds to the characters for most of Act One up until the band’s breakthrough into mainstream crossover of American music. The holes for me were that the plot was probably not substantial enough to hang a whole show on, not enough sub plots. The biggest themes were Gloria’s troubled relationship with her mother who was opposed to her relationship with Estefan and feeling that her daughter was too good for him. The spectacular choreography by Olivier Award-winning Sergio Trujillo was a joy and a thrilling highlight of the evening with a massively talented, energetic and passionate set of dancers; he must have had a dream come true with talent in such huge abundance. The show’s costumes were sparkly and did not disappoint. Gloria’s two piece red ensemble, a plethora of female costumes for every dance number. Opening night or not, the scene changes and interchangeable sliding sets were tight and seamlessly executed along with a stellar lighting plot.

The story is of a talented, teenage singer and songwriter who is encouraged by her loving grandmother to pursue her talents despite a domineering mother who is reluctant to allow her daughter to stray from the family as she needs her to help run the home, share the care of her Multiple Sclerosis-suffering father and her younger sister. Emilio Estefan and his emerging band The Latino Boys invite Gloria to join their group, the music binds them together in love and talent and most people know that they are one of pop’s most enduring marriages and successful couplings in both love and music. Gloria’s grandma was a star turn as Consuela played by Karen Mann with excellent comedy who had the whole audience in the palm of her hand.

Act two documented the continuing rise to mega stardom and pop success of the uncrowned king and queen of Miami as their music becomes international and stratospheric overcoming the cultural barriers of language and style to have impact and success in a previously unheard genre outside of the Latino countries. But, they did it, as pop culture history tells us. At the height of their fame, in 1990, the band’s tour bus had a major crash and Gloria was left having spinal surgery which could have left her paralysed. Her invitation to sing at the American Music Awards marked the start of her return to the public arena.

Leading lady, Philippa Stefani shone like a diamond with her superstar presence. She was strikingly similar to Gloria Estefan in stature and had incredible vocals, not an impersonation of Gloria but completely in the style of. I was moved to tears when she sang ‘Anything For You’. She had incredible control and versatility in her musicality but her stage presence from young, unconfident Gloria to older, superstar was impressive. Her interplay with the more dominant Emilio (George Ioannides) was beautiful. They had a genuine chemistry. Estefan is older than Gloria and his confidence, swagger and control of the band’s vision was really well played. His singing voice was sublime and displayed the sincerity of his love and affection. Gloria is his muse and they were a team from the off.

Gloria’s mother played by Portuguese actress Madalena Alberto, a seasoned West End star, delivered a sharp and thorny mother whose character progressed from selfish through to selfless as she reconnected and reconciled with her daughter in Act 2. A stand out performance with a powerhouse vocal which thrilled and had an enigmatic stage presence. You couldn’t take your eyes off her.

This was such a joy on a cold, Monday evening in late autumn to be taken to a warm, happy place with excellent singing and dancing and playing. A lovely turn to take the Congo into the stalls aisles and invite the audience at the end of Act 1. The ensemble absolutely worked themselves to the bone in this fast paced, high energy singing and dancing concert of Miami Sound Machine songs. Just amazing to watch as a theatrical spectacle at its best.

A jaw-droppingly impressive finale showcasing all featured principles singing solos from favourites such as’ Dr Beat’ and ‘1,2,3’ and ‘Reach’ was well received and had everyone ‘ Get On Your Feet!’ to join in, singing and dancing with the Latino vibes . The show’s non-stop, high octane and infectious energy must have made even the sourest of audience members want to tap their toes. It certainly made me want to get to the nearest salsa class because the rhythm really got me!

Reviewer - Kathryn Gorton 
on - 28/10/19

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