Rousing songs and dancing in the aisles
“On Your Feet!” runs through May 25 at The Gateway. For tickets starting at $59, visit thegateway.org
Combining the lessons learned and trials experienced throughout a career — especially an immigrant’s journey in the entertainment field — can be a daunting task, but “On Your Feet!” manages to convey the yearnings, pathos, challenges, triumphs and love story of Gloria and Emilio Estefan’s life into a gorgeously wrapped musical.
The Gateway’s official opening Friday night had the audience literally on their feet, dancing the conga in the aisles cheering. Most were moved.
Gloria and Emilio Estefan’s story began in Cuba before Castro’s takeover; Emilio immigrated first without his parents, then Gloria, her mother and sister when Batista was overthrown. In the musical, their father urged them to flee, later joining them in Miami.
The show opens with an introduction in 1990, when the couple had reached a major peak — they would have many — before the musical launches into their history with Gloria’s father, José (Ruben Flores), who fought in the Vietnam War, listening to a recording of his daughter’s singing as a young girl. Weathered shutters as backdrops, projections of colorful Miami barrio scenes and a fountain in the big production number, “Tradición,” heightens the vibrancy of Cuban family life. The ebullient dance scene, panama hats, flashing skirts in bright shades, and women flapping billowing sheets after their wash are all resounding statements of their roots. It’s a transitional number that introduces Emilio asking if Gloria can audition for his band. Mama Gloria Fajardo (Karmine Alers) doesn’t like him; he’s a threat. Consuelo (Sydia Cedeno), Gloria’s grandmother, does. She wants Gloria, who has been singing since she was a little girl (Halle Morana and Olivia Hyl), to realize her dream.
The chemistry between Emilio (Eddie Noel) and Gloria (Marina Pires) is truthful, humorous, admiring and luminous.
Emilio was totally supportive of Gloria, insisting at one point that her name be placed in front of The Miami Sound Machine (“Girls want to be like her,” he says). His punch-to-the-heart awakening love look as Gloria sings the beautiful “Anything for You” as her audition number for the band is a subtle emotion of tender, admiring desire. Noel is brilliant as the charming, funny and endearing romantic lead (he bludgeons English words), but he also pushes Gloria to be the best because he knows she has it in her.
The lead-up to “Conga” is nothing short of hilarious and rousing. When the couple is a hit in the Latin market but wants to cross over, they have to convince their backer, Phil (Daniel J. O’Connor). He won’t budge, so they play the song at bar mitzvahs (catch John Pitocco tear up the dance floor) and Italian weddings, trying to get him to watch the song’s audience reaction. The Shriners convention does it, when Phil finally witnesses the Conga’s impact. This is a full-tilt, dance-like-your-joyous-life-depends-on-it number, with young Pitocco stomping the glass.
Then, they snake into the audience pulling in patrons!
There are many four-star moments like this one. Pires gives a great performance as Gloria, an initially hesitant, then full-tilt performer, who finally embraces her destiny both as a singer, songwriter and Emilio’s partner. Noel’s gorgeous declaration as Emilio, “For 15 years I’ve worked my ass off and paid my taxes. So I’m not sure where you think I live … but this is my home. And you should look very closely at my face because whether you know it or not, this is what an American looks like,” got a rousing cheer. Alers as Gloria’s mother is a fierce force of nature; Cedeno as Gloria’s grandmother is adorable and wise.
Gloria’s bus accident that occurs after appearing at the White House in March 1990 is wrenching; she wanted to take some time off after an amazing two-year world tour and looks plaintively at their son, Nayib (Hunter Rasmussen), questioning the cost of their success. Emilio points out they were “two Cuban immigrants shaking hands with the president” and that these moments are worth the efforts made. Then the bus crash occurs. Will she ever walk again? The dream scene with Gloria under anesthesia speaking to her father, who died of multiple sclerosis, her grandmother and the other important people in her life, is beautiful.
We all know what happens at the end. Gloria undergoes a painful spinal fusion; she embraces rehab (although she once said the pain was so intense she had hoped she could faint) and recovers, but the way this musical integrates the important aspects of the couple’s rise to fame, as lovers, musical collaborators and ethical, kind entertainers, is fast-paced and totally engaging.
There’s a Broadway set and costumes sparkling with sequins, brilliant colors, fringe and spandex, and a talented cast that tackles disco, salsa and rumba with happy, skilled verve (pure 100-percent joy spurts out in the climax number, “Mega Mix”) and songs that soar in uplifting harmony.
This cast fully embraced and enthralled the audience with the Estefans’ message: family and love are important. So is working hard, being authentic and fighting for your dream.
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