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Review: On Your Feet! at Liverpool Empire ***1/2

Back in the mid-80s a new sound hit British dancefloors – and the singles charts – with an infectiously funky Latin rhythmed dance number called Dr Beat.

It was a sound that had burst out from the huge Cuban expat community in Florida and across the Atlantic courtesy of Miami Sound Machine and their big-voiced front woman Gloria Estefan.

And it makes for a big, bouncy ensemble belter and floor filler in this dramatised jukebox musical version of the story of Gloria and her entrepreneurial husband Emilio and their rise from immigrants-with-nothing to global superstardom.

Truly the American Dream, realised in two-and-a-half hours shot through with big ballads and hip-wiggling salsa beats.

Playwright Alex Dinelaris’ narrative arc takes us from late 1960s/early 1970s Miami, where a young Gloria Fajardo is a winsome family drudge, juggling washing duties with looking after her poorly father and little sister, to a triumphant return to the spotlight in 1991 following an horrific tour bus accident which left her with a fractured spine.

Along the way she does constant battle with her unrelentingly tough mother (Madalena Alberto) while Emilio mirrors her fight, in his case against recording industry pigeonholing – and some latest racism – in order to be able to create the Miami Sound Machine sound he envisions.

Arguing with industry suits isn’t the most dramatic of plot devices, and these fights take up much of the centre of the evening with the problem that it can all end up feeling a bit repetitive.

The show’s core strength and success lies in its central performances and ensemble song and dance numbers that are full of fantastic energy and Sergio Trujillo’s snappy choreography, from the bombastic searchlight-strewn overture of Rhythm is Gonna Get You through 1-2-3 to the infectious Conga (which was a massive global hit but did nothing here in the UK), delivered by the cast and a cracking six-strong band.

Philippa Stefani is terrific as the shy teenager with a sweet voice and a talent for songwriting who morphs into a confident, superstar singer, and she and George Ioannides as Emilio have a believable natural rapport.

Alberto brings some hidden vulnerability to the mother who doesn’t want her daughter to suffer the same disappointments she did, while there’s a warm-hearted if broad comic turn from Hollie Cassar as Gloria’s abuela Consuelo.

The action takes place on a rather uninspiring set of sliding panels and projected images which carry the story from Miami to Vietnam (where Gloria’s father fought) to Cuba to New York where in 1990 Gloria ended up in a hospital bed.

It leaves the music to do the talking – music that does indeed finally get the audience on their feet.

Photos: Johan Persson

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