‘On Your Feet!’ Riverside musical captures Estefans’ story in all its glory


As the final show of an already exciting season, Riverside Theatre brings us “On Your Feet!

The Story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan.” The biographical musical is centered on the dynamic, Grammy Award-winning couple who changed Latin music in America. The pair also wrote the musical’s music and lyrics.

The Estefans’ rise in show business is remarkable, especially 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 to the musical’s script, which bounces around in time 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 in Vietnam.

Later, we see her mother perform a number in a pre-Castro Havana nightclub before the family must flee Cuba. In this departure from the frequent bio-musical template, the musical numbers of “On Your Feet” stretch beyond the Estefans’ catalogue of greatest hits.

Lesser-known works from the songwriters are given to Gloria’s mother and grandmother, to Gloria as a child, and to Emilio and an adult Gloria. 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 of the audience.

After intermission, events turn more serious in the wake of the 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 expresses 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 Latin artists dives 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 Gloria, and Lozada nicely conveys his many loves — for his wife, his son, for performing, and for shrewd dealmaking.

Iliana Marie Garcia emulates Gloria 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 she later endures the pain of recovery from 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) Consuelo, her 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.

Miss YaYa Vargas is nuanced as Gloria’s no-nonsense mother, Gloria Fajardo, whose disapproval of her daughter’s performing 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, José Fajardo, also deliver precise and affecting performances, while Michael James Byrne, playing 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 13-year-old Allan Reyes, in a dual role as the Estefan’s 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 evocation of the 1980s dance styles is enhanced by Stack’s period costumes and Kelley Jordan’s wigs.

Michael Schweikardt’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, and 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, and we are taken back to a specific time when Latin and popular music joined in a distinctive new sound.

“On Your Feet!” runs through May 5 on the Stark Stage at the Riverside Theatre. Tickets start at $45. Riverside Theatre is at 3250 Riverside Park Dr., Vero Beach. Call 772-231-6990 or visit RiversideTheatre.com.

Photos provided

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