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.
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