From the beginning, On Your Feet! is vibrant and full of sound, compelling you to move as the original Miami Sound Machine plays “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You.” Singer Gloria Estefan (played by Ana Villafañe) is in mid-concert addressing an adoring crowd in the early 1990s. Just off stage is husband Emilio (played by Josh Segarra) who, in heavy-accented, rapid-fire English, jumps from being manager to co-parent with their son, to spouse, to the number one fan of the international superstar in the bright lights.
If you know anything about Gloria and Emilio Estefan, you know that this is a story that begins and continues with them together. But while Gloria’s story is well known, Emilio’s has often been the one in the background. This musical brings that part of their story to the foreground, and also serves as a telling commentary on what it took for two immigrants to create their own American success story.
The story of Emilio and Gloria as a pair is quaint, even old-fashioned: two children of immigrants fleeing the Castro regime, they bonded over their love of music and their belief that they had something to give as artists and performers. Gloria’s command of the stage was the missing piece to Emilio’s musical direction and endless hustle. She smoothed his rough edges with a silkiness personified by her unique voice that captivated entire stadiums. He provided the focus and drive that propelled them both from garage players to a world-touring, multi-platinum-selling, Grammy, AMA and Billboard award-winning powerhouse.
If you are a jaded Hollywood watcher like I am, you wonder at what point there would be a cheating scandal, or a divorce, or some indication that the charming story that is the Estefans is flawed. The musical never gives that notion a thought. You get a peek into the private lives of the Estefans, but scriptwriter Alexander Dinelaris, who also wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for Birdman, provides this peek with a respect and admiration that would never allow for uncouth scandal to overtake the story.
The struggle is focused on the much more important story of how they were able to make crossover history with a new sound that helped pave the way for Latino artists to make music and find success in the English-speaking market. While keeping true to their Cuban heritage, the Estefans saw early that Latin music can be enjoyed by all. Historically there was a broader, though lesser known trend in the ’80s and ’90s of Latin artists trying to break into English crossover, such as the New York Latin freestyle scene. But the sound that came from the Estefans out of Miami went beyond the dance halls and evolved throughout the decades, incorporating American staples like pop (“Anything for You”), R&B (“Don’t Wanna Lose You” ), gospel (“Coming Out of the Dark”) and disco (“Turn the Beat Around”). The musical gives the audience a ringside seat to the struggle Emilio and Gloria faced when trying to convince radio stations and studio execs that Latino artists should not be pigeonholed into one genre, but that their music was as “American” as anyone’s.
Their gamble was their success, as they go from playing weddings and Bar Mitzvahs, to selling out arenas and getting bigger record contracts then Madonna. Gloria and Emilio proved that their story was an American story, and that Americans of all kinds can relate to them and their music. That relationship with their fans helped them through perhaps the biggest tragedy of their lives, and gave them the strength to rise again and continue their multi-decade trajectory of musical influence and cultural relevance.
On a personal note, I got to meet the Estefans at the show and chat with them briefly. I was blown away at how unbelievably comfortable they were in their own skin. They were veterans and had seen it all, but they wanted to be true Latino hosts, and even went behind the bar to pour drinks. There have been a lot of break out Latin stars, both onscreen and onstage, that have built a cocoon of distance around them, despite the smiles and handshakes. A life of constant adoration can cause a numbness that dampens the desire to connect. But Emilio and Gloria are the real deal. They joked, they played with babies, they asked if people were comfortable and if they were enjoying themselves. They were less international superstars, and more your tío and tía, who also happen to be unbelievably wealthy and famous.
The Estefans should be proud at the story played on stage. The cast is fantastic: Villafane’s Gloria is uncanny, with a voice that does the diva justice. Segarra personifies Emilio’s spirit and drive well, while providing a flattering interpretation of how Emilio might have looked like 25 years ago in shorts. I loved Andrea Burns as Gloria’s mom, who interpreted her complicated relationship with Emilio with both class and sass, and brought home how interrupted dreams can have lifelong consequences. The show stealer, of course, was Alma Cuervo as Grandma Consuelo, forever in love’s corner and helping to bridge the gap between the old world to the new. The beautiful ensemble cast and dancers (with a shoutout to Luis Salgado and Nina Lafarga) were all amazing, and kept the energy higher than the Miami Four Seasons Hotel. While it must have been difficult to span 30 years in two acts, the direction kept the story flowing, punctuated with just the right songs. I will confidently admit that I completely teared up during Eliseo Roman’s “When Someone Comes Into Your Life.” As a dad to two girls, it got me right in the feels.
If you haven’t gotten tickets, do so before the rest of the world finds out and you have to wait six months to a year. And yes, the idea of the Broadway “concert” musical is not new; Rock of Ages, Jersey Boys and Motown all found a way to entertain audiences with a stroll down musical memory lane. But what sets this production apart is its loud, unapologetic Latino-ness. And like the music of the Estefans, it cuts across race and ethnicity, and hits people to their core, getting them “On Their Feet.”
Born in the Bronx, New York and currently a New Jersey resident, Miguel has written multiple entertainment reviews and political opinion pieces for online publications including CNN.com, HLN.com, the Huffington Post, Llero.net and The Father Life, an online magazine for dads. You can follow him @miguad98.
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