By Erin Fleming
The Broadway in Chicago series is high-kicking off Summer 2015’s Must-See list with the very promising pre-Broadway tryout of ON YOUR FEET!—the story of Gloria and Emilio Estefan. (Just to allay any concerns right off the bat: yes, it earns its right to an exclamation point and all caps.)
Two-time Tony Award winner Jerry Mitchell (Kinky Boots) directs the cast of 30, with choreography by Olivier Award winner Sergio Trujillo (Jersey Boys) and an original book by Academy Award winner Alexander Dinelaris (Birdman) that proves the pursuit of the American Dream is alive, well and best accompanied by a Latin beat.
The Estefans and their separate families each fled Cuba in 1959 to escape the reign of Fidel Castro. Years later, they met in Miami when Gloria auditioned for Emilio’s popular band, then-known as “The Miami Latin Boys.” Later, it would become the “Miami Sound Machine.”
A somewhat storybook romance ensued, including the requisite hesitation from Gloria’s mother to let her daughter abandon her psychology career and take up with a musician to become full-time entertainer. But in spite of that, the shyly talented Gloria and charismatic visionary Emilio married in 1978, launching what would become an internationally successful, superstar partnership, resulting in 26 Grammys and more number one hits than any other crossover Latin musical act ever.
Dinelaris says that this immigrant saga may seem more suited as mini-series than musical theatre, but together with Mitchell he has created something much more exciting and heartfelt than the average rags to riches tale. Instead, ON YOUR FEET! is a vibrant, colorful, romantic American love story that had the audience laughing, crying and literally dancing in the aisles on opening night—which is easy to do when the ensemble jumps off the stage and pulls patrons up to do the Conga with them at the end of Act 1. Trujillo’s Cuban-infused choreography keeps the show moving at breakneck speed, requiring the ensemble to rip off the stunning, Esosa-designed costume pieces mid-twirl when need be.
The creative team avoids the trap of many jukebox musicals by ignoring the chronological order of Estefan’s catalog and focusing instead on the thematic impact of the lyrics to decide where to place her hits, as well as some lesser known songs and a few original numbers written for the show. The effect is a surprisingly cohesive musical narrative, much of which will be instantly recognizable to patrons who lived through the 80s, yet experienced in a brand new way.
The story opens backstage at a “Miami Sound Machine” concert in 1990, at the height of the couple’s success. They have seven number one hits, a happy marriage, and a healthy son who tours with them so that their family is always together. A picture is presented of a down-to-earth (if exhausted) diva and her hardworking, go-getter producer-husband, who, for all of their material success and fame, seem to have their priorities straight, as evidenced by their banter with each other and their well-adjusted son. Seems like they’ve got it all. All of that is threatened moments later by the nearly fatal tour bus accident that lands Gloria in the hospital with a broken back, something her doctors said would make it impossible for her to walk, much less perform ever again.
The story returns to that moment later in Act 2, but it first flashes further back to young Gloria Fajardo growing up in Miami, helping to raise her little sister and take care of her wheelchair-confined father, whose exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam gave him MS. In addition to working and going to school, Gloria writes songs, sings and plays the guitar, eventually attracting the attention of Emilio Estefan, leader of the local band. Her mother, perhaps mindful of her own past as an entertainer in Cuba, is skeptical of her daughter’s future with this suspiciously charming man, but Gloria’s grandmother encourages her to pursue her dreams.
Gloria and Emilio Estefan’s marriage in real life has lasted 36 years, and their undeniable chemistry is captured brilliantly in the on-stage connection between Josh Segarra and Ana Villafañe. Villafañe (who looks like, sounds like, moves like, and most importantly, smiles uncannily like Gloria Estefan) presents an instantly likeable Gloria: an interesting, contradictory mix of ambitious passion and authentic humility—the dutiful daughter of a hard-working family fraught with struggles, who just happens to be immensely gifted. Segarra is winningly awkward and warmly funny as he tries to win over three generations of Fajardo women with varying success.
Act 1 chronicles the “Miami Sound Machine”’s rise to international stardom, with some of the funniest moments coming out of the interactions with music industry pros who get in the way. The Latin radio stations tell the Estefans they sound too “American;” the pop stations tell them they sound too “Latin;” and the label execs don’t want them to release an English language record, telling them, “there’s no such thing as a Latin crossover artist.” Act 2 focuses on how the demands of their performance schedule is straining their family relationships, leading up to the bus accident, Gloria’s gruelling physical recovery and her eventual triumphant return to performing.
It’s quite an emotional story that emphasizes the importance of family above all else: fame, fortune, even art, and as such runs the risk of being too schmaltzy or sentimental. It is mostly saved from that fate by balancing the touching moments with lots of Cuban-American humor, and of course, the pure, pulsating joy of Latin music. Turns out, the rhythm is, actually, gonna get you.
David Rockwell’s subtle set pieces whisk us in and out of Miami kitchens, Havana concert halls and NYC record label offices, back and forth from Cuba in the 1950s to America in the 80s quickly and efficiently, allowing the attention to fall appropriately on the traditional Cuban costumes and dances that usher in the scene changes.
The ensemble is phenomenally versatile in their double and triple roles. The value placed on family in Cuban-American culture is carried over into the production in the fully drawn characters of Gloria’s parents and abuela, played hilariously throughout by Broadway icon Alma Cuervo. Stand-out moments include Eliseo Roman’s (Gloria’s father) heart-wrenching ballad, “When Someone Comes Into Your Life,” and Andréa Burns‘ (Gloria’s mother) flashback numbers as a nightclub entertainer in Havana. (There should be a follow-up prequel musical written purely as a vehicle for these two and an excuse for Andrea to wear her sequined gold dress as much as possible. She might want to put that in her contracts going forward.)
“America’s Got Talent” contestant Eduardo Hernandez plays the Estafan’s son, Nayib, and steals the scene more than once with his fancy footwork.
The show features some of the most iconic dance hits and pop ballads of the 80s and 90s, including “Conga,” “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You,” “Don’t Want to Lose You,” “Anything For You” and “Coming Out of the Dark.” It’s suitable for the entire family, ages 10 and up.
ON YOUR FEET! is a whirlwind, passionate summer romance—it’s only here for a short while. Get up and make it happen.
Broadway in Chicago’s “ON YOUR FEET!” runs through July 5 at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St. Chicago. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 pm, Saturday at 2 and 8 pm and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 pm. Tickets ($30-$350) and more information are available online here.