When Gloria Fajardo's parents fled Cuba to come to the United States in the 1960s, they could not imagine how hard it would be for them to succeed in this country. But they also couldn't anticipate that their eldest daughter would team up with Emilio Estefan in Miami and become an international singing sensation. Creating a blend of American pop and Latin rhythms that dominated radio stations' airwaves, as well as DJ playlists in dance clubs, Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine did what few record company executives thought possible -- they appealed to both English and Spanish speaking audiences; not as a novelty act, but as a new sound. This jouney, augmented with many more biographical details, is the basis for On Your Feet, the undeniably infectious musical at Overture Center through May 20th.
As a top-40 addicted teenager in the 1980s, I consider "1-2-3," "Conga," and "Get on Your Feet," an indelible part of my youth. But even with that background I was skeptical about this juke-box musical, one of a growing genre that depicts the rags-to-riches, against all odds story of a music group making it big, while revisiting all the band's hits. But On Your Feet easily surpasses the bar set by many other versions of the "Behind the Music" melodrama.
It's a fascinating, stage-worthy story presented intelligently, with music that casual fans will recognize, and a lot of beautiful pieces you've never heard before. The show also features electric choreography by Serigo Trujillo. These fast and frenetic dance routines keep the hardest working chorus in musical theater contantly twirling, samba-ing, and salsa dancing with energy, precision, and real joy.
The smart book by Alexander Dinelaris ("Birdland") is playful, funny, and mostly avoids cliches. Instead it presents difficult moments in the lives of the musical power couple, without glossing over their own disagreements, the ongoing disapproval of Gloria's mother, her father's long battle with multiple sclerosis, pointed racial issues, and the bus accident that nearly took her life. The script also includes idiosynchratic details about Emilio and Gloria's courtship and ongoing relationship that feel real, such as the moment of their first kiss, which was preceded by a flirtatious argument about whether his birthday really was on the Fourth of July.
For all that realism, there are also characters who are simply meant to entertain while they steal the audience's heart. Debra Cardona accomplishes that, and more as Consuelo, Gloria's mischevious grandmother, who encourages Gloria to follow her dream. But she, and the entire cast are upstaged consistently by the young performer Carlos Carreras, who dances through multiple roles with expert salsa moves and an unabashed love for the limelight.
As Gloria, Christie Prades is divine. A dead ringer for the superstar with a voice to match, she has the acting chops to take her seamlessly from a hot dance number to an emotional scene with her mother (an excellent Doreen Montalvo) to a surreal, surgery-induced dream sequence, where Gloria revisits all the people who have been important to her. Prades also has the insatiable energy of Estefan herself, making complicated dance moves seem effortless, leaving the stage only long enough for a costume change.
Muricio Martinez holds his end up as the swaggering, sexy Emilio, a sometimes stubborn, always driven man who works tirelessly to promote his music. Although his accent sounds sing-songy at times, Martinez's speech is a nice counterpoint to all the white bread record executives he has to argue with to find backing for the Miami Sound Machine's albums.
And Martinez easily wins the "best line of the show award," for his passionate "this is what Americans look like" speech, in response to small-minded, bigoted suits. And although the musical was written long before the Trump administration, the line that champions diversity and inclusion resonates powerfully with audiences, as evidenced by the spontaneous applause it received opening night.
In addition to the poignant story, On Your Feet is a relentless celebration of Latin-influenced music and dance. With new, often bedazzled costumes for almost every scene, and a ten-piece band onstage, make no mistake: the rhythm is going to get you. So hold on for the fun and fabulous ride.