On Your Feet Takes Audience Through Estefans’ Journey

Early in her life Gloria (Iliana Marie Garci) celebrates the sound that will define her in Riverside Theatre’s On Your Feet.

By  Terrence Girard

Florida audiences can retrace the groundbreaking success of the state’s celebrity couple in On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan. The biographical musical about the duo who changed Latin music in America plays through May 5 as the season’s final show at Riverside Theatre in Vero Beach.

The Estefans’ rise in show business is remarkable in many ways, not the least for the barriers they broke in crossing over from a limited Latin audience to universal appeal. To tell their story, book writer Alexander Dinelaris takes a nonlinear approach, bouncing around the decades to fill in the characters’ backstories. We begin with the couple on tour at the height of their fame, young son in tow, before going back in time to retrace their journey.

In a flashback to Gloria’s childhood, we hear the first inklings of her musical talent in the songs she records and sends to her father serving in Vietnam. Later, we see her mother performing in a pre-Castro Havana nightclub before the family must flee Cuba. In this departure from the frequent bio-musical template, On Your Feet’s musical numbers stretch beyond the Estefans’ catalogue of greatest hits. Lesser-known works from the songwriters are given to Gloria’s mother, her grandmother, Gloria as a child, as well as to Emilio and Gloria herself. Much of this music may be new to those expecting the Top 40 hit parade found in other so-called jukebox musicals.

Which isn’t to say audiences won’t recognize plenty of songs from the radio airplay the band received during its peak popularity. Along the way, familiar pleasures such as “The Rhythm is Gonna Get You,” “1-2-3,” “Anything for You,” “Here We Are” and the title song are woven into the narrative, either as expressions of the characters’ deepening feelings, or in their gigs on the path to success.

The first act tracks the growing popularity of the Miami Sound Machine despite a restrictive music industry that tries to pigeonhole them as Latin-only artists. It ends in a funny and joyful rendition of their “Conga” spreading from small clubs, bar mitzvahs, and Italian weddings to Las Vegas and beyond. As the record climbs the Billboard charts, the number spills exuberantly off the stage and into the aisles.

After intermission, events turn more serious in the wake of a life-threatening accident that nearly paralyzed Gloria in 1990. The crash of their tour bus is an arresting moment of inventive stagecraft as conceived by director Marcia Milgrom-Dodge, with bodies hurtling in slow motion every which way. But the following section of the show drags a bit as each of multiple family members express their love to the unconscious Gloria in song before her touch-and-go surgery. Her painstaking rehabilitation and eventual return to performing builds to a victorious comeback and worldwide tour.

The cast of Latinx artists dive into their roles with gusto. As Emilio, Angel Lozada displays his character’s drive and ambition, refusing to be boxed into the conventions of any musical genre. The script gives this role equal if not greater dramatic weight than that of Gloria, and Lozada nicely conveys his many loves — for his wife, his son, for performing, and for shrewd dealmaking.

Iliana Marie Garcia emulates Ms. Estefan’s vocals and performance style with a fitting physical resemblance. As written, the character’s non-performing action is more limited than her husband’s. We watch her outgrow a crippling stage fright, she squabbles with her mother, and later endures the pain of recovery from her back surgery. Throughout, she sings and dances terrifically, flaunting the sparkly costumes Ivania Stack has given Gloria for her concerts.

As Gloria’s abuela (grandmother) and biggest champion, Barbara Bonilla is an amusing and endearing presence. She had the opening night audience eating out of her hand from her first appearance until her last. Much of the script’s humor comes from her sardonic observations.

Miss Yaya Vargas is nuanced as Gloria’s no-nonsense mother, whose disapproval of her daughter’s performing career may be rooted in envy. She gains sympathy when her own thwarted show business aspirations are revealed.

Sofia Brown as the young Gloria and Adriel Orlando Garcia as her father also deliver precise and affecting performances, while Michael James Byrne as an inflexible record executive finds the right balance between small-minded villain and comic foil.

Perhaps the biggest spontaneous ovation of the night went to young Allan Reyes in a dual role as the Estefans’ son Nayib and as young Emilio. His enthusiastic and acrobatic dancing won repeated applause.

The cast is completed by an ensemble of multitalented singing dancers who deliver Maria Torres’ choreography with precision and flash. Their skillful evocation of the 1980s dance styles is enhanced by Ms. Stack’s period costumes and Kelley Jordan’s wigs.

Michael Scheikardt’s scenic design is simple but effective, coupled with Yael Lubetzky’s lighting. An upstage wall of various sized circular lights shines brightly to denote when characters are performing in concert. A collection of wheeled equipment shipping trunks are a visual reminder of constant life on the road. Props and even people appear from within them as they roll about the stage to become desks, tables, and other furnishings.

Given the show’s title, it’s all but mandatory that the audience be standing at the end, as a “mega mix” of the band’s chart-topping hits becomes the curtain call.

If it doesn’t shake up the bio-musical form in any significant way, the show does take audiences back to a specific time when Latin and popular music joined in a distinctive new sound. You might find yourself humming the tunes on the way home.

On Your Feet! runs through May 5 at the Riverside Theatre, 3250 Riverside Park Drive, Vero Beach, FL 32963. Tickets are available online at www.riversidetheatre.com or by calling the box office at (772) 231-6990

(This is a version of Terrence Girard’s review running in Vero News.)

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