Deck the halls with Broadway musicals

'On Your Feet,' 'The Color Purple,' 'School of Rock'

4 minute read
Ana Villafane and the cast of “On Your Feet!” (All photos by Matthew Murphy via
Ana Villafane and the cast of “On Your Feet!” (All photos by Matthew Murphy via

Three new blockbuster Broadway musicals are bringing more than tidings of comfort and joy to the Great White Way this month — they’re bringing new audiences.

On Your Feet, the irresistible new bio-musical that opened last month at the Marquis Theatre, has wildly enthusiastic, multi-ethnic audiences responding as the title commands. Gloria and Emilio Estefan's climb to fame with their band, the Miami Sound Machine, is a typical showbiz success story. Alexander Dinelaris’s book covers it all, from Gloria’s childhood and the family’s flight from Havana to Miami, her “discovery” by Emilio and his band, their joint rise to stardom, her spine injury when a semi crashed into her tour bus in 1990, and their award-winning musical and business collaboration.

This exhilarating production, directed by Jerry Mitchell and choreographed by Sergio Trujillo, features a flashy cast of 28, plus a dance ensemble, and the Marquis Theatre explodes with their energy. The show is almost too plot-heavy in its effort to cover all the details of Gloria’s life, but when the ensemble gets going and treats you to Gloria’s top hits, the “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You.” Ana Villafane, in her Broadway debut, is a fabulous Gloria, and she’s supported by other fine female performers, including Andrea Burns as Gloria’s talented singer-mother and Alma Cuervo as her supportive grandmother, Consuelo. As Emilio Estefan, Josh Segarra gives a stirring performance with his husky voice and magnetic charm, and the chemistry between Segarra and Villafane is salsa-hot.

At the end of Act I, the ensemble delivers an electrifying “Conga,” led by eight-year-old Eduardo Hernandez, that has the audience dancing in the aisles. This celebration of the American Dream and opportunity for all comes just at the right time, when we urgently need to be reminded that we were all once immigrants and that our cultural diversity is our greatest wealth and strength.

Stripped to its essentials . . .

Just as On Your Feet is attracting a new Latino audience to Broadway, The Color Purple is bringing in a passionate African-American public to celebrate the moving story of Celie, a black woman in rural Georgia circa 1909. Adapted from Alice Walker’s 1982 novel by playwright Marsha Norman, the play premiered on Broadway in 2005, and now has returned in a sharply streamlined version directed by John Doyle. (It was also an Oscar-nominated 1985 film directed by Steven Spielberg.)

Doyle is known for paring down musicals to their essence, as when the actors themselves played all the musical instruments on a bare stage in his powerful Sweeney Todd. In this production, Doyle gives us an all-African-American ensemble of 17 on a bare stage in front of a collage of wooden slats that suggest the poverty in which Celie and her neighbors live. On the backdrop hang dozens of chairs, which the actors use occasionally as set pieces.

. . . a struggle for freedom and identity

This barebones mise-en-scène unleashes the powerful story of the women’s struggle for freedom, identity, and expression. Celie is the personification of oppression, raped by her stepfather (who fathered her only two children) and abused and enslaved by her unloving husband Albert.

“Answer my prayers, God, or you ain’t no God at all,” she cries. Her struggle to become her own person is paralleled by her daughter-in-law, Sofia, and by Shug Avery, a former prostitute, both of whom lend support and lead the way for Celie to break free from her domestic and spiritual bondage.

The lovely musical score by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray, a lyrical amalgam of gospel and blues, is as transporting as the story. As Celie, Cynthia Erivo makes a breathtaking Broadway debut with her tiny frame and her powerful voice. As Shug Avery, Jennifer Hudson ignites the show with her charisma and her remarkable vocal artistry.

Manic charisma

Meanwhile, if you loved the Jack Black movie School of Rock, you won’t be disappointed by the exuberant stage version. Alex Brightman offers his own brand of manic charisma in the role of Dewey, the loser substitute-teacher who starts a rock band in his fourth grade classroom. Directed by Laurence Connor, the boundlessly energetic cast features a dozen of the most talented kids under the age of 11 I’ve seen on stage anywhere — check out Brandon Niederauer as guitar-playing Zack, Dante Melucci as keyboard-playing Freddy, and Bobbi MacKenzie as a pint-sized Tomika with pipes as loud as Patti LuPone’s.

The kids far outnumber the grown-ups in School of Rock, both on the stage and in the audience, and that’s cause for celebration. Warning: If you’re planning to bring your youngsters, prepare to stop at an instrument store on your way home. Happy holiday shopping (and pray it’s not a drum set).

What, When, Where

On Your Feet. Book by Alexander Dinelaris; music by Emilio and Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine. Through April 3, 2016 at the Marquis Theatre, 1535 Broadway, New York.

The Color Purple. Book by Marsha Norman; music/lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray. John Doyle directed. Through May 1, 2016 at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street, New York.

School of Rock. Book by Julian Fellowes; lyrics by Glenn Slater; music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Through June 11, 2016 at the Winter Garden Theatre, 1634 Broadway, New York.

All at

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation