Theater Review: ‘On Your Feet!’ at the Woodlawn

 

The Deco District’s Woodlawn Theatre brings an in-person production to its stage for the first time since the pandemic darkened San Antonio theaters last year. And it’s a knockout.

On Your Feet! is the story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan, performers and songwriters who changed the face of Latin music forever. Alexander Dinelaris Jr., who wrote the Oscar-winning Birdman, telescopes their story into a satisfying musical entertainment.

Photo: Siggi Ragnar.

Their struggle against prejudice arises when they play an English-language demo to a smug record company executive who pratically snorts in disdain and tells them they should stick to singing in Spanish. Emilio fires back, “For fifteen years I’ve worked my ass off and paid my taxes. So, I’m not sure where you think I live… but this is my home. And you should look very closely at my face, because whether you know it or not… this is what an American looks like.”

They find innovative ways of getting their music out, whether it involves handing out records to dance club owners in exchange for free performances, or taking endless gigs for bar mitzvahs and weddings…anywhere their music can be heard. As everyone knows, they were successful in these endeavors, creating the musical monster that became the Miami Sound Machine.

After a more-or-less bouncy first act, Act Two settles down into a more solemn story as it relates the incidents of the night of March 20, 1990, when their tour bus was hit by a semi trailer and Gloria’s life hung in the balance. But this is a tale of redemption, wish fulfillment and spectacular comebacks — you can’t keep a good jukebox musical down. And as if to make up for the solemnity of some of the songs in the second act, the Woodlawn audience is treated to a “Mega-Mix,” at the conclusion of the show, featuring such fan favorites as “Turn the Beat Around,” “Rhythm is Gonna Get You,” and — of course — “Get On Your Feet.”

As usual, the Woodlawn’s production is superb. Christopher Rodriguez’s direction is tight, and Jaime Rodriguez’s orchestra sounds more like 70 pieces instead of a mere seven. Carla Sankey’s choreography is bright and energetic, made even more colorful by Rose Kennedy’s usual yeoman’s work of providing dozens of period-perfect costumes.

The cast is also uniformly excellent. Jillian Sainz and Miguel Ochoa shine as the Estefans, as do Ella Sofia Gonzales and Ricardo Martinez as their younger selves. Melissa Gonzalez also provides poignant moments as Gloria’s mother, also named Gloria. Once an aspiring entertainer herself, she found her dreams of stardom quashed when she was forced to flee to America, and the heartache touches her performance. Rita Duggan delights as the always-smug but truth-telling Consuela, who dispenses pearls of wisdom as easily as she doles out insults. And the Woodlawn’s ensemble never fails to impress.

Man, I’m glad live theater is back.

On Your Feet! plays Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. at the Woodlawn Theatre, 1920 Fredericksburg Road. There is also a special performance on Thurs., July 15, at 7:00 p.m. The theater is still implementing COVID-19 protocols, which can be found here.

Feature photo: Jillian Sainz as Gloria Estefan (Siggi Ragnar).

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