January 27, 2016

Standing Up for the Old-Fashioned Fun of "On Your Feet" and "School of Rock"

Theater snobs complain that Broadway has become too focused on shows that will appeal to the tourist trade. But the populist in me doesn't have a problem with that. As long as a show is well made, it's OK with me even it if isn't what I think of as "my kind of show." Which is why I have no trouble giving thumbs-up to the big eager-to-please musicals On Your Feet! and School of Rock. Neither show is advancing the art form but they're both great fun.

On Your Feet! is the bio-musical about the singer Gloria Estefan and her producer husband Emilio. The couple have been together since Gloria was 19 and have now been married for 37 years. Together they've won nearly two-dozen Grammys and had the first Latin-music album to top the Billboard charts. Both from working class families that fled Castro's Cuba, they have accumulated an estimated net worth of $700 million and last year President Obama awarded them the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

These achievements may be impressive but there's not a lot of drama in them so book writer Alexander Dinelaris squeezes what narrative juice he can from Gloria's mother's unhappiness about her daughter's decision to go into show business, Emilio's battles to move Latin music onto the mainstream and the 1990 tour bus accident that injured Gloria's spine and threatened to leave her in a wheelchair (click here to read a Q&A with the real-life couple, who are also lead producers of the show).

But the real reason for making (and seeing) On Your Feet! is its feel-good music and this jukebox musical is filled with such hits as "1-2-3," "Conga," "Turn the Beat Around," and, of course, "Get On Your Feet," all exuberantly played by an onstage band that includes members of the Estefans' Miami Sound Machine.

The result is like a big dance party and director Jerry Mitchell, who is always up for a good time, cranks the festivities up high. The sets and costumes are vibrantly colored and the 30-member cast (almost all of them, in a nice change to see on Broadway, Hispanic) is constantly whirling around the stage.

Choreographer Sergio Trujillo knocks himself out with one hip-shaking dance after another (click here to read an interview with him). There's even a conga line that snakes through the Marquis Theatre, with the dancers beckoning audience members to join in. 

A mohawk-haired man in the row in front of my sister Joanne and me was so inspired to answer the call that he actually stepped on the laps of the four people between his seat and the aisle.

The leads are great. In her Broadway debut, Ana Villafaña looks and sings just like the younger Gloria but brings her own charisma to the part. Josh Segarra, who plays Emilio, leans a little heavily on his innate sex appeal but it works cause he's got plenty of it.

Stage vets Andréa Burns and Alma Cuervo provide heart as Gloria's disapproving mother and supportive grandmother. And little Eduardo Hernandez almost steals the show when he breaks into his dance routine. By the end, Joanne, a big jukebox musical fan, and I, not normally so, were up on our feet and moving to the music right along with everyone else.

We stood up for School of Rock too. It's the other genre that purists pooh-pooh even more than they do jukebox musicals: a musical based on a hit movie. In this case the move is the 2003 comedy about a failed heavy metal rocker named Dewey Finn who becomes a substitute teacher at a fancy prep school where he secretly turns his grade-school students into a kick-ass rock band.

The movie, written by funnyman Mike White and starring Jack Black at his most manic and charismatic, featured songs by Kiss, The Clash, AC/DC and Metallica. Which made the pedigree for the musical seem somewhat dubious when I first heard about it.

The book for the stage version is by Julian Fellowes, who has written all the episodes of TV's British country-house drama "Downton Abbey." And the music is by Phantom of the Opera's Andrew Lloyd Webber, with lyrics by Glenn Slater, who has specialized in Disney productions like the movie "Tangled" and the stage version of The Little Mermaid.

But what doubters like me forgot is that Lloyd Webber started his career with rock scores for shows like Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Jesus Christ Superstar and so knows his way around a guitar riff.  And that Fellowes knows how to craft a narrative that commands attention even when the storyline is as silly and predictable as it is here. 

Fellowes is also unafraid of schmaltz, which allows him to underscore the anxious relationships between the kids and their helicopter parents (straight and gay) that the movie only glossed over (click here to read an interview with the writer).

As the show's lead producer, Lloyd Webber also had the good sense to hire Alex Brightman, until now a Broadway ensemblist, who turns in a high-energy performance that pays homage to Black's Dewey while making the character wholly his own. 

Brightman reportedly gained weight to play Dewey and it's a marvel how he keeps it on as he throws himself around the stage at the Winter Garden for two hours at each performance (click here for a piece about him).

Sierra Boggess plays the by-the-books principal of the school who, only in a musical, becomes Dewey's love interest but she only has a few chances to show off her crystalline soprano. 

Spencer Moss is nerd-perfect as Dewey's best pal Ned who is trying to put his rock days behind him. But poor Mamie Parris has the thankless task of playing Ned's shrewish girlfriend

They're all backed up by a hard working ensemble that, under Laurence Connor's sure-handed direction, takes on triple duty as Dewey's old band mates, the kids' parents and other teachers at the school, helpfully distinguished by Anna Louizos' sly costumes.

But the true key to the show's appeal is the multi-ethnic group of kids, none of whom have yet hit puberty, who make up Dewey's band and its crew. They're augmented by an offstage adult band but there are many moments when the kids are actually playing and when they let it rip, they're equal parts fierce and adorable.

Your irony-obsessed cousin may not care for this show but both your hip grandma and your tween goddaughter are likely to enjoy both School of Rock and On Your Feet!, regardless of what the theater snobs say.

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