On Your Feet, the jukebox musical based on the lives and tunes of Gloria and Emilio Estefan, opened at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre last night in colorful, vibrant fashion—but it was not one of Ms. Estefan’s hit songs that drew the loudest applause of the evening. A key scene in the first act depicts Gloria and Emilio trying to pitch a new single to a record executive. But, the single is in English, and the white executive does not see how they could possibly expect to cross over from the Latin market, where they have already found great success with their band the Miami Sound Machine. “You’re not back home anymore,” the executive says to Emilio, a Cuban-American. Frustrated, Emilio reminds him that he has lived in the United States for many years now. “Look at my face—whether you know it or not, this is what an American looks like.”
The audience understandably went wild for this line and message, which could not feel more timely. In many ways, On Your Feet, which ran on Broadway from 2015 to 2017, is a celebration of immigrants, and features an almost entirely Latin cast. Gloria (Christie Prades) was born in Havana, Cuba and moved with her family to Miami as a young girl. The musical tells the story of her life, using music from her extensive catalogue and one original song Estefan wrote for the show. We see the struggles her family faced—her father fought in the Vietnam War and later developed multiple sclerosis, and much of Gloria’s life was focused on helping her mother, Gloria Fajardo (Nancy Ticotin), her grandmother, Consuelo (Debra Cardona), and her sister, Rebecca (Claudia Yanez) with his care. She always intended to become a psychologist, but music was her true passion. When she is 17 years old, she is discovered by Emilio (Mauricio Martínez), a record producer and member of the Miami Sound Machine. At the urging of her grandmother and sister, Gloria performs for him, and soon she is traveling with the band, playing shows and writing songs. Her mother, who also dreamed of a singing career before her life took a different path, is resistant to Gloria’s new lifestyle and also to her burgeoning romantic relationship with Emilio.
Over the next decade and a half, Gloria’s star rises, and she finds rare crossover success in both the Latin and American markets. She and Emilio fall in love and have a son, and her family struggles with the loss of her father and her grandmother. At the peak of her fame, Gloria is seriously injured in a tour bus crash, resulting in a risky spinal fusion surgery and a long recovery process. The musical ends with her triumphant return to the stage in 1991, a year after her accident.
Estefan’s music is great, and On Your Feet is packed with fun performances of catchy hits including the titular number, “Rhythm is Gonna Get You,” and “Dr. Beat.” Directed by Jerry Mitchell with choreography by Sergio Trujillo, the show nearly always feels celebratory, creating a party atmosphere that extends to the rafters of the theater. At the conclusion of act one, as the company sings “Conga,” they dance down into the aisles, encouraging audience members to join. While Gloria’s family life and accident insert a sufficient amount of drama into the proceedings, the story is slight in comparison to the music, which is the true star of this show targeted towards tourists and casual theater fans. Moments of melodrama are intentionally milked, and act two gets bogged down with too many ballads, temporarily slowing the lively rhythm of the musical.
That being said, Prades is giving a breakout performance as Gloria, which must have been intimidating given that Mrs. Estefan herself was in the Los Angeles audience opening night. She deftly sings her way through number after number, all while dancing her heart out. Martínez pairs nicely with her, getting a few moments to shine himself and making evident why Gloria was unable to resist Emilio’s charms. A mention must also be given to the young Carlos Carreras who played several child roles, including Gloria and Emilio’s son, on opening night and captivated the crowd with his stellar dance moves. While much about this musical is formulaic, it has an undeniable charm, and even the most cynical of theatergoers will probably find themselves dancing in their seats by the time the final medley rolls around.
On Your Feet runs at the Pantages Theatre through July 29th. The running time is two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission. Tickets start at $39 and can be purchased here. After Los Angeles, the tour continues on to San Diego, Denver, Costa Mesa, Las Vegas, and more. For information about future tour stops, click here.