We all know the words – ‘come on, shake your body, baby, do that conga, I know you can’t control yourself any longer…’ – it undoubtedly gets you moving. ‘On Your Feet!’, a new musical chronicling the lives of Gloria and Emilio Estefan, shimmied into Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre. I caught it on its opening night.
Sitting in my seat as the band warmed up, I became aware of what sort of musical talent was going to show itself on stage. Trumpet riffs punctuated the conversation around me, and as the curtain came up and the band launched into the overture, the air crackled with energy. The band remained on stage for the entire show, at points retreated behind a screen while action was happening on stage, emerging again for the concert scenes. They were the definite highlight, never upstaging the scenes before them, but still keeping it chugging along.
The plot of the musical does let it down in some respects. It’s an interesting one; Gloria Estefan is an icon of Cuban-American culture, and the wider canon of Latinx culture in the United States. She is widely known for ‘breaking’ Latin music into mainstream American culture. Her story is not without struggle, however, as her parents were forced to flee from Cuba, and an illness afflicting her father meant she became a caregiver to him and her family at a very young age.
The eponymous Gloria is played by the incredible Philippa Stefani. Her accent is flawless, her vocals soar, and she makes an incredibly charismatic and believable character. Her grandmother, Consuela (Karen Mann), is also a highlight, adding some necessary comic breaks to the conflict. A change in Gloria’s life comes in the form of Emilio (George Ioannides), leader of the band that will become the famous Miami Sound Machine, and despite dissent from her mother, Gloria (Madalena Alberto), they shoot for stardom together.
Unfortunately, the production feels somewhat disjointed. I found myself wondering if such a story was exactly necessary to be told on tour in the UK, despite Gloria’s fame. At points it either dragged, or felt criminally underdeveloped – not exactly helped by a few technical blunders (silent mics, or lights with minds of their own) dragged the audience away from the action. Additionally, the actor who played Emilio was switched over to his understudy, Sharif Afifi, at the intermission, without explanation – I found he tackled the difficult accent switches somewhat better than Ioannides.
However, the show has an unmatched energy. The dance ensemble are incredible, performing endless feats of motion in different elaborately bejewelled outfits without breaking their shining smiles. There is also something quite magical about the finale of the first act, in which all the elements of ‘Conga’ come together in an explosive display.
The audience, I might mention, loved it. Every number was met with whoops and cheers, and it took very little persuasion to get them ‘on their feet’ at the end of the show with the company. They possess a great amount of talent, but are unfortunately let down by what I fear is quite a weak script.