What Does On Your Feet Say about Gloria Estefan and Immigrants?

Written by | Entertainment, Stage

gloria musical

Due to the current political climate, the Gloria Estefan musical On Your Feet may now be more relevant than ever.

Following a nearly two-year run on Broadway, the national tour of On Your Feet has danced its way to Los Angeles at the Pantages Theater. With its catalogue of familiar hit songs, On Your Feet is unabashedly a jukebox musical, and yet this exuberant tribute to the life and career of Gloria and Emilio Estefan is no ordinary jukebox musical.

In a larger context, On Your Feet is a triumphant celebration of the immigrant experience. At a time when immigrant rights – and by extension human rights – are under attack, this high-energy, somewhat sentimentalized yet highly entertaining musical takes on a greater importance about the ideals and values we cherish and must now fight to protect. During a pivotal confrontation with a record exec who tries to marginalize the band as a niche Latino commodity, Emilio stands up to him, saying, “This is what an American looks like.” This bold declaration reverberated through the theater triggering a boisterous and sustained applause from a supportive audience.

Fueled by two powerhouse performances of its dynamic and charismatic leads (Christie Prades as Gloria and Mauricio Martinez as Emilio), On Your Feet charts Gloria and Emilio’s humble, parallel beginnings as children forced to leave Cuba at an early age. Their paths align when a mutual friend asks the more established Emilio who had his own band (The Miami Latin Boys) to advise the younger Gloria, who – at 17-years-old – was earning her degree in psychology while honing her craft as a struggling singer songwriter. Recognizing Gloria’s talent, Emilio asks her to sit in with the band and, in short order, makes her the lead vocalist. The show deftly tracks the parallel rise of their career trajectory alongside their budding romance. The well-paced story focuses on their plucky determination and tenacity in the face of a music industry more calibrated to pigeonhole Latin artists. Their persistence, talent and ingenuity to market themselves directly to their audience ultimately pays off and enables them to become a crossover success — spawning a decade of hits that left an indelible mark on music in the ‘80s and beyond. But what makes this musical an enduring piece of theater is its ability to humanize these two individuals via struggles the audience can wrap their heads and hearts around.

Three Powerful Cuban Characters

Christie Prades (as Gloria Estefan) is the crown jewel of this production, lending her powerful, crystal-clear vocals to songs that have been etched into our collective subconscious. Prades delivers on all counts, imbuing Gloria with a tender vulnerability in her youthful, pre-fame years, when she was trying to balance her ambition with her familial duty in the face of her father’s multiple sclerosis. As Gloria develops some grit and learns to assert her independence from the mother who fought to hold her back, Prades is equally effective.

Mauricio Martinez brings charm and swoon-worthy matinee idol looks to the role of Emilio. Although Martinez’s Cuban accent conjures (unintentional) comparisons to Ricky Ricardo, and his charm occasionally leans uncomfortably close to smarm, Martinez hits his stride as adversity forces his character to mature. Martinez delivers the goods vocally with powerful ballads and a tone reminiscent of the late George Michael.

The other standout is Nancy Ticotin as Gloria’s mother (also named Gloria) who turns out to be a formidable performer in her own right, evidenced by a bravura performance that takes the audience by surprise. (For the purposes of this review, I’ll refer to her as Gloria Senior.) Gloria Senior’s strained relationship with her daughter echoes the fabled rivalry between mother and daughter in the classic musical Gypsy. Gloria Senior was a bona fide talent in her own right. She had even been offered the chance to provide the vocals for the Spanish language Shirley Temple. But her father forbade it, snuffing out a promising career. It’s this emotional scar which casts a pall over the mother-daughter relationship, resulting in a rift which is only repaired after the infamous tour bus accident which nearly claimed her daughter’s life.

Gloria Estefan’s Tragic Accident

The life-altering automotive accident made international headlines and provides the climactic arc for the show. If it were not based on actual events, this could be the kind of plot device that seems heavy-handed. However, here it is fitting — given the impact it had on the singer’s life.

The show’s creators have taken measures to blend the accident into the fabric of Gloria’s life story with a nuanced conceptual dance that serves as a smooth transition during the tense 9-hour surgery. The remainder of the show focuses on Gloria’s rehabilitation and recovery. Gloria Senior serves as a key conduit for helping her daughter find the strength to fight her way back. There’s a moving duet between Emilio and Gloria’s mother that brings resolution to their relationship.

The show ends somewhat anti-climactically with Estefan’s comeback performance at the Billboard Music Awards and her performance of “Coming out of the Dark.” It’s a fitting epilogue to her struggles but also feels a bit like a vanity piece. Perhaps this is part of the challenge of building a biographical musical when the subject is still very much alive. Thankfully, the show ends with a rousing performance medley of Estefan’s signature hits, delivered with gusto by the company’s stellar cast and orchestra reminding us why Gloria Estefan earned her place in the Songwriters Hall of Fame and serving as a final reminder that America is indeed stronger together.

Get On Your Feet is scheduled to play at the Pantages through July 29 and has planned runs in San Diego, Denver, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and many other cities.

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Last modified: July 16, 2018