On Your Feet Opened June 17, 2015 at the Oriental Theater in Chicago to Standing Ovation
By Xavier LeBlanc
What happens when the world of Latin Pop and Broadway musicals collide on one stage?
Within the heart of Chicago’s theater district inside the artistic and elegant Oriental Theater an eager crowd was treated to the exhilarating combination of both worlds. Directed by Jerry Mitchell, On Your Feet is the much anticipated musical stage production based on the fascinating lives and careers of Cuban music icons Emilio and Gloria Estefan with book by Academy Award winning writer Alexander Dinelaris (Birdman).
With seven Grammy Awards to her name, 100 million albums sold worldwide and a plethora of other noteworthy achievements, few artists’ lives are more apt for Broadway than that of Gloria Estefan. The story of the Estefans is one of priceless and undeniable significance in the history of music and Latin culture in the U.S.; On Your Feet demonstrates exactly why while also provoking the audience to fill their hearts with the beautiful sound of electrifying music and energy.
Playing the roles of Emilio and Gloria Estefan respectively, are the young talented actors Ana Villafañe (Max Steel, Los Americans) and Josh Segarra (Sirens), each enfuse into the life of the youthful trailblazing years of their real life counterparts while adding a little something of their own. Rounding out the main supporting cast are Gloria Fajardo, Alexandria Suarez and Eduardo Hernandez.
The audience filled the intimate venue nearly to capacity as the eager crowd quickly took their seats in pure excitement. Warming the crowd into the spirit of the presentation was an audio skit featuring the real Emilio and Gloria Estefan as they exchanged a short but hilarious interaction about preparing for the show. One of the highlights during the start of the musical was the endearing performance of a very young Gloria Estefan (played by Alexandria Suarez) serenading the audience with a sweet vocal performance as we transitioned into her young adult life. Not long after we are introduced to the 17 year old version of Gloria played by Ana Villafañe who wastes no time, quickly demonstrating her fantastic voice with vibrant energy as she provides a glimpse of what is to come. She smoothly embodies the mood and presence of an eager and strong willed young Gloria.
Making his first appearance next was young Emilio (Josh Segarra) shyly and innocently introducing himself to Gloria’s family in a way that had the audience in laughter and smiles all around. Amusing banter between Emilio and Gloria’s mother (Gloria Fajardo) while attempting, with little success, to explain his presence as she reacts by poking fun at his use of grammar (substituting the word coincidence with causally).
Young Gloria is quickly fluttered by the sight of Emilio with what seems to be a crush at first sight. The scene’s humor is cemented by the visual of Emilio’s choice of small shorts and Gloria’s awkwardness upon meeting him as she seems unable to say farewell while walking away. Gloria’s grandmother (Alma Cuervo) charms the audience to great effect as well, quickly winning over the audience’s heart.
Gloria sweeps Emilio off his feet musically as she demonstrates her voice to his band for the first time. The scene is handled beautifully as the other characters temporarily disappear. The future couple literally only see one another as Gloria sings and Emilio circles around her hypnotized by her voice. The next batch of scenes perfectly and charmingly present Emilio and Gloria’s road towards their eventual formation of the Miami Sound Machine.
Wonderfully crafted flashbacks of Gloria’s father are scattered throughout featuring a scene during the Vietnamese war and a touching segment exploring their reason for leaving Cuba during turbulent times as they are forced to separate.
The acting is a true standout between actresses Ana Villafañe (Gloria) and Gloria Fajardo (Gloria’s mother) as they embody the growing tension regarding her musical career and a heated dispute whether or not to allow Gloria’s younger sister to join the tours.
The musical numbers are by far some of the most thrilling and energizing choreography and singing you will see all year. Choreographer Sergio Trujillo does a masterful job. Villafañe handles what would could have been an impossible task for anyone else reinterpreting Gloria’s singing and dancing, but does so with astounding success. Her voice is powerful and filled with great vigor as she simultaneously delivers moves and sounds that embody Gloria’s musical spirit. Segarra also supplies great levels of charisma as Emilio while showcasing his own vocal talents and well balanced levels of confidence and humorous vulnerability as Emilio. The ensemble cast and performers also do an extraordinary job during the salsa numbers as the essence of Cuban culture and music throughout the stage becomes palpable and vibrant.
Members of the audience audibly sang along and shouted out “wepa!” during peaks in the salsa numbers and the enthusiasm actually complimented the atmosphere during the show. The crowd truly embraced it the Latin Music spectacle. The feeling seemed mutual as the performers surprised everyone by forming a conga line that descended into the aisles between rows dancing and smiling for the audience as the excitement spread throughout. A fitting transition into the intermission that followed, leaving the audience on a high note for the break.
The next half of the show focused on Emilio and Gloria’s meteoric rise to the top of the Spanish language music industry while the costume design helped reflect the passing of the years and success. One of the most intense and memorable acts took place during a meeting between the Estefans and a music exec who touted their success but became increasingly condescending of their desire to produce music in English. It became easy to identify with them as the music exec attempted to bully them in spite of Gloria’s strong will. This led to an unforgettable crowd favorite moment when Emilio affirms his place as an American and exclaims “whether you like it or not, this is the face of an American”.
A collection of scenes followed with a touch of humor and great creativity as we see the journey of the Estefans in attempting to self promote their new music, pitching it and their unrelenting effort and drive in making it all a reality. It culminated in a brilliant display of lights as Conga played, celebrating it’s official release within the musical’s story and the energy was inevitably felt. As expected, many powerful renditions of Gloria’s music were featured including Mi Tierra, Get On Your Feet, Rhythm Is Gonna Get You and others.
Even with all of the uplifting energy of the dance numbers and playful humor, the life story of the Estefans would not be complete without exploring the tragic accident suffered by Gloria on her tour bus in 1990. Members of the cast took on the role of news reporters while punctuating the severity of the injury and what it must have felt like for fans of Gloria at the time. It is especially moving when Gloria’s mother visits the hospital to reconcile with her bed ridden unconscious daughter.
We are allowed to explore Gloria’s powerful journey into recovery and the conflict it caused between the Estefans as the two actors delivered effective scenes that portrayed the struggle between recovery and the need to perform again. This leads to a resonating scene in which images of thousands of fan letters are projected onto the stage as Gloria reads through selected items and other actors take on the role of the fans while speaking out the heartfelt contents. It allows us experience the inspiration that helped motivate Gloria for her triumphant return to stage at the American Music Awards as we are transported to this time effortlessly.
The show ends with a wonderful performance by the two leads and the musical’s band to the tune of Turn The Beat Around as it is used to transition into an energetic and more than well earned curtain call.
The audience is absolutely surprised as their breath is taken away with great joy when the real Emilio and Gloria Estefan step on to the stage to greet the cast with hugs and smiles while waving endearingly to the audience. By this point you feel you have truly taken the incredibly life journey through music, dance, humor and drama that allows you to feel closer to these impeccable music legends.
The production is next headed to Broadway in New York and On Your Feet is a musical that can be experienced and celebrated by an audience just as diverse and expansive as the cities of Chicago and New York themselves. “Get on your feet” and catch this unforgettable show.
Oriental Theater, Chicago; 2,200 seats; $100 top. Opened, reviewed June 17, 2015; runs through July 5. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.