Review: On Your Feet! (London Coliseum)

Gloria Estefan’s musical opens in London

Christie Prades as Gloria Estefan and George Ioannides as Emilio Estefan
Christie Prades as Gloria Estefan and George Ioannides as Emilio Estefan
© Johan Persson

Gloria Estefan has always been the most likeable of pop divas, and this bouncy, exhilarating extravaganza is easily the most likeable of the crop of recent bio-musicals. On Your Feet! has charm in bucketloads, much like its heroine, winningly played by Christie Prades.

From the pre-show announcement featuring the actual Gloria and Emilio bickering over whether or not he has turned off his cellphone, to the act one finale where members of the ridiculously attractive ensemble prowl the stalls looking for salsa partners, this show is all about a good time. It succeeds. Deafeningly.

"Rhythm Is Gonna Get You" was one of Miami Sound Machine's biggest hits and could just as easily serve as alternative title to this musical. The pounding beat and drive of numbers like the aggressively percussive "Dr Beat" and the anthemic "Oye Mi Canto", ensure that you'll barely be able to sit still in your seat, or wipe the soppy grin off your face.

There are lyrical moments: Estefan and her real-life daughter Emily have penned an authentic musical theatre duet for husband Emilio and his feisty mother-in-law, "If I Never Got To Tell You", as they consider a possible life without Gloria following the well-documented, near-fatal 1990 bus crash. "Don't Wanna Lose You Now" becomes a tear-soaked solo for Emilio as Gloria undergoes potentially life-changing surgery. George Ioannides' performance is so heartfelt you'll reach for the hankies. The subsequent scene where Gloria makes a triumphant return to the stage at the American Music Awards (this isn't a spoiler, it's all on Wikipedia) carries a similar emotional wallop. As sentimental, even as kitschy, as On Your Feet! is, it is impossible not to become invested in the Estefan's story.

The joy engendered by this show almost masks the fact that, until the aforementioned crash which occurs well into act two, there is little real conflict. The main obstacle facing the Estefans before global superstardom is that their music was initially perceived by record executives as too Latin for mainstream audiences, and too American for Latin DJs. It's interesting, but not high stakes drama.

Alexander Dinelaris' serviceable book has a cinematic sweep, and embeds the hits into the script with panache. Musical theatre veteran Jerry Mitchell directs with slick, dazzling Broadway know-how, matched every shimmying, butt-shaking step of the way by Sergio Trujillo's thrilling choreography.

If Prades doesn't look or sound much like Gloria Estefan, she captures her unique combination of vulnerability, heart and steel, fielding an attractive, rangy voice, and a smile that could light up Wembley Stadium. She's believable as the psychology student with an unexpected talent for creating music that makes the whole world dance. She's lovely, and so is Ioannides who invests Emilio with bulldozer charm and a swagger that never quite covers up an innate decency.

A powerful presence with a voice of platinum-coated dynamite, Madalena Alberto's magnetic performance suggests Gloria's mama had the potential to be a far bigger diva than her daughter. Karen Mann gets nice comic mileage out of the hackneyed role of the wise-cracking Latina grandma and there's sensitive work from Elia Lo Tauro as Gloria's damaged ex-military father. The ensemble, onstage band and Kenneth Poster's rock stadium lighting are all terrific.

Less worthy than Beautiful, more fun than Tina and less bonkers than The Cher Show, it's easy to see why On Your Feet! was a solid Broadway and touring hit. It will undoubtedly make a lot of people pretty ecstatic over here too. Resistance is futile, that rhythm really is gonna get you.