Critic’s notebook: Reviews of ‘On Your Feet!’ in Selma, Fresno Philharmonic, ‘Hardbody’ at Shine!

A review roundup:

‘On Your Feet!’

Through July 1, Selma Arts Center

Selma Arts Center continues to find ways to impress me, this time with the buoyant jukebox musical “On Your Feet!” It should come as no surprise that Gloria and Emilio Estefan, the two leading characters in this glowing account, are depicted as only slightly less venerable than your average Catholic candidate for sainthood. When you executive produce the story of your life, you have a lot of clout. It’s their music and their narrative.

It also should be no surprise that the appeal of “On Your Feet!” is more about that catchy music and not so much about that story. The rags-to-Latina-superstar narrative, complete with caustic record-company producers and a painful mother-daughter feud, gets as much drama injected into it as possible. But in the end, it’s the rapid lyrics “Come on, shake your body, baby, do the conga” that will be imprinted on your brain when you leave.

Director Juan Luis Guzmán stages the show with flair. A key to that is Dan Aldape’s lighting design, which draws us in with the colors and movement of a flashy Miami nightclub. Also key: the fine live band conducted by Jordan Williams. The trumpet (John Sandler) and trombone (Jack Landseadel) are a thrilling touch, and sound designer Cole Schott does a good job balancing singers and instrumentalists.)

Guzmán’s best decision was casting Alina Gonzalez as Gloria Estefan. Gonzalez towers about six inches over the real Estefan, and she wouldn’t get any gig work doing impersonations of her, but once she starts to sing, that’s when the magic begins. Her vocals are rich, big and festive.


Cady Mejias is a standout vocally and dramatically, playing far older than her years as Gloria’s mother. The mother-daughter relationship, with its hints of maternal jealousy and educational snobbery, is the most interesting in the play, more than the husband-and-wife storyline that gets far more stage time. It turns out that Gloria’s mother was a singer herself whose career ambitions had to be put on hold, so she went on to earn a doctorate. (Perhaps this tale isn’t as rags-to-riches as we might suppose.)

John Piper, as Emilio Estefan, doesn’t have the vocal chops to match Gonzalez, but I appreciated his emotional investment in the role, blandly written as it is, even as the show stays surface-level with his relationship with Gloria. One of his best moments is a mother-in-law duet with Mejias. In a terrific secondary role, Yvette Montijo shines as Abuelita. Quincy Maxwell makes for a good, gruff record producer, but his transformation to Estefan accolyte is a touch too broad.

I’m impressed with the liveliness of much of the show’s direction, which has to fit in flashbacks and large ensemble dance numbers, nicely choreographed by Steven Montalvo. (The beach towels are a nice touch in “Tradicion.”) Briyelle Yang’s costumes sparkle in all the right ways. On the night I attended there were some lighting and sound glitches and at point an awkward scene transition, but for the most part, the pacing was lively and the visuals vibrant.

Above all, this show is constructed so that it will rise or fall on the performance of the person playing Gloria. Thanks to Gonzalez’s lively turn and powerful voice, I don’t think Estefan fans will be disappointed.

‘The Justice Symphony’ and Beethoven’s 9th

Performed June 11, 2023, Saroyan Theatre

What a way to end the season. The Fresno Philharmonic and Fresno Master Chorale delivered two powerful pieces that intertwined around the themes of joy, protest and striving toward a better world. While Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is a guaranteed crowd pleaser on any occasion, I was unprepared for the emotional and musical impact of Damien Geter’s “The Justice Symphony.”

Geter’s three-movement piece is built from beloved spirituals and folk songs that were appropriated as protest tunes during the Civil Rights era. The referenced tunes include “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” “Hold On,” “Precious Lord” and “We Shall Overcome.”

I loved the variations in musical styles: a bit of a Motown beat with “Hold On,” the dramatically enunciated precision of “We Shall Not Be Moved” (with the words “like a tree that’s planted by the waters!” nearly spat out by the choir), the jazzy flow of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” At one point in “Precious Lord,” a solo tuba and trombone joined soloist Karen Slack (whose impeccable and meaty vocals made the piece soar) in a dazzling interlude, giving the moment the jaunty feel of a New Orleans funeral march.

But the piece is no mere stuck-together medley of inspirational tunes. I found myself entranced by the connective music that Geter wrote to bridge these familiar songs and the context in which he places them. The result is musical scaffolding that seems both sweepingly cinematic – I could “see” the Civil Rights marchers forging on – and reflective. Conductor Rei Hotoda ably guided the instrumentals and singers (who were beautifully prepared by Fresno Master Chorale artistic director Anna Hamre), and I was impressed by the balance between the two. I understood the lyrics, which is essential for a piece of this nature.

Geter relishes using the human voice not just to sing, but to shout. At one point the choir barked out “No Justice, No Peace!” repeatedly, pounding home the message with a brisk authority. And the end of the piece, breathtakingly, was a thrilling unison note ending the phrase “Till victory is won.” As that word, sung a cappella, floated across the audience, I thought of the double meaning: “won” as in emerging victorious; and “one,” meaning all together. You can’t do one without the other.

The Beethoven No. 9 was powerful, as you’d expect. The juxtaposition of the two symphonies added to the social-justice focus, and the musicians were well prepared all around. I was not as impressed with the balance between the singers and instrumentalists as with “The Justice Symphony.” The vocals were overpowered at times.

Maestro Hotoda and I have a difference of opinion, it seems, regarding the tempo of this piece. To me, the Fresno orchestra played it too fast.

I realize this is a hot debate among musicologists and conductors. Beethoven wasn’t definitive on the matter. Conductors have varied greatly in their approaches. (By way of example, Wilhelm Furtwangler in 1951 took 74 minutes to play the piece, Artuoro Toscanini in 1952 took 65 minutes to play it, and Leonard Bernstein in 1978 conducted the entirety of the Ninth in a languid 78 minutes, according to recent Associated Press story.)

It seems the current trend these days is to crack the baton like a whip. Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, recently conducted a performance at New York’s Carnegie Hall that clocked in just shy of an hour.

I didn’t time the Fresno performance, but there was certainly no sluggishness to Hotoda’s approach. In the second movement, Beethoven’s driving rhythms felt peppy. Perhaps too peppy? The oboe and horns certainly got a good workout, but there were moments when the articulation – particularly the horns – sounded muddy. I suspect it was because they felt as if they were racing the track at Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby.

In the fourth and most famous movement, the choir sounded quite good but also at times so driven that I lost some of the diction. The singers were working so hard at flying through the piece that some of the emotional impact was lost. I might be biased in this regard because I’ve listened so much to the Ninth performed at a less-than-breakneck speed. I understand that my routine-loving ear was telling my brain: Whoa, there’s something off here. Others likely disagree. But I wanted to savor my Ninth just a little more.

‘Hands on a Hardbody’

Shine! Theatre Company; finished its run June 10, Shep’s Place

For Shine! Theatre’s February production of “Spring Awakening,” I wrote that it was very rough in terms of stagecraft, and that while all the cast members appeared committed to the material, the acting, singing and choreography were uneven. I can say the same for the company’s “Hands on a Hardbody,” which once again, in the Shine! tradition, was big on ambition and lacking in execution.

This was immersive theater in the truest sense: I sat just a few yards away from the (real) pickup truck that is the centerpiece of the show. Director Jenny Myers had an enormous challenge using the outdoor terrace at Shep’s Place, a downtown bar. The truck took up a good chunk of room, of course, and Myers was left with little navigable space with which to maneuver her large cast.

The 2012 Broadway musical is based on an acclaimed 1997 film documentary of the same title that follows a group of contestants through a contest giving away a “hardbody” truck in Longview, Texas. The rules are simple: The last contestant with his or her hands on the truck wins it.

It’s a joyous, weird story that lets you get to know each contestant’s story. Overall, “Hardbody” is about, as I wrote in a preview, living through an economic downturn, the loss of dignity for the disadvantaged, the blandifying corporatization of the U.S. The music has a twang and an earthy, beaten quality that often soars.

I liked many individual aspects of the production, particularly in the first act: the swagger (and voice) of tony sanders as Ronald, the candy-bar fanatic; the husky, character-driven vocals of Lorna Leslie as Janis; the heartfelt portrayal of Annamarie Ronquillo-Grisby as Virginia, who laments that her longtime husband doesn’t want to spend time with her anymore; the unrestrained, gospel-belted excess of Allison Botello as Norma. One of my favorite parts of the show is the way the contestants remove their hands from the truck and enter the fantasy world of musical theater when they start singing. It seems like an apt metaphor for the way that regular people are often chained to responsibility, and only through whimsy they can escape.

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And the fact that sanders, as artistic director, put together a live band for this intimate show was very impressive.

However, and I want to say this gently and from a place of love and admiration, I believe Shine! has recently been too ambitious. A show like “Hardbody” doesn’t just require just two or three great singers and actors backed up by an enthusiastic ensemble. Nearly every character in a show like “Hardbody” has a significant solo moment. If you’re going to put an actor in that position, you have to do more than just tell him or her, “Sing your heart out!” This production included issues with pitch, articulation and basic vocal control.

If the vocal ability and/or training isn’t there, figure out a speak-sing or stylized way to approach the song. Again, one of my favorite singers in this production was Leslie, who twanged the phrase “20 tons of air” with a voice between a cheese grater and a smoker’s cough. (And that’s how the actress playing the role on Broadway did it on the cast album as well.) I thought she was great.

I don’t mean to discourage Shine!, which I have long admired for its ambition. But you have to consider the scope of the show and your casting pool. Otherwise you risk not being able to follow through on grand plans.

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

Comments (3)

  • Steph

    Isn’t the term “Maestra Hotoda?” Or is that old school and picky?

    I think we’re of the same generation who grew up with Leonard Bernstein’s slower and more languishing Beethoven’s 9th. But you’re right – not only has tempo changed drastically over time, so has tubing’

    Everyone in music knows A = 440 for tuning, but it turns out that’s been evolving quite a bit over the eras and there’s even a geographical bias. Crazy.

    Can’t wait to see Alina’s star turn as Gloria Estefan, and to watch Selma once again impress.

    As for Shine! I wish for them better marketing of their shoes, better understanding of their limitations, and tremendous applause for the sheer efforts of their actors. They did try. I just don’t know if audiences will continue to forgive them over time and will continue to attend.

    We’ll see, meanwhile I hope they listen to your words. Tough love from you is always given with the best intentions.

    • Steph



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