“This is what an American looks like!” Emilio Estefan, producer extraordinaire, husband to Gloria Estefan and Cuban immigrant, shouted this to a record executive in the 1980s when he was told that his last name wasn’t American enough. Thirty years later, the same phrase is still unfortunately being shouted by Latino immigrants (but now it’s to the “leader of the free world” rather than to the leader of a record company).
On Your Feet!, the jukebox musical produced by the Estefans about their love story and careers together, has taken on a much more powerful meaning in today’s political climate than it had when it premiered on Broadway three years ago. It was no surprise, then, that Emilio’s moment with the record exec garnered some of the biggest applause of the evening, although there was no shortage of enthusiasm and excitement at the Hollywood Pantages for the L.A. premiere of the show, currently on its first national tour.
No doubt a lot of the excitement was because the Estefans were in the audience for the entirety of the show on Tuesday, July 10, as well on the red carpet beforehand — as were many of their celebrity friends, including Rita Moreno, the cast of Netflix’s One Day at a Time, Kathy Griffin and songwriter Diane Warren. “We’re thrilled beyond words to have so many celebs come out and support,” Gloria Estefan said. It’s not just the celebrities, however, that makes her happy to open the show in Los Angeles for the first time. “L.A. [is] the entertainment capital of the United States [and] the Pantages is a historic theater, you can’t make [a] theater [like this] anymore, so it’s very special,” she said. Emilio echoed Gloria’s sentiments. “The crowds have been amazing and it’s been such a warm reception. It’s been so successful on Broadway and now being here is amazing,” he says.
As Emilio said, the enthusiasm from the L.A. audiences could be felt by the Estefans and the cast even during their previews. “The audiences have been phenomenal, they really get it,” Gloria said.
“We’ve had about six previews and these [L.A.] audiences are absolutely stellar,” said Christie Prades, who plays Gloria Estefan in the show. “They’re so excited, and we’re excited to keep bringing the story to them. We’re almost sold out!” Prades’ excitement was palpable as she shone onstage despite having such big shoes to fill. Her voice at times sounded strikingly similar to the real Gloria’s voice and her vocal talent was broad and extensive: she just as easily navigated the sounds of the Estefans’ biggest pop hits as she did the more traditional Broadway numbers, such as the show’s original song “If I Never Got to Tell You.”
By the end of the show, it almost feels as if we're watching Gloria herself in concert. “I’m so lucky to bring [the show] to L.A. representing such a sensation that is Gloria,” Prades said.
And she isn’t the only member of the cast to stand out in this production. Mauricio Martínez, who has found success in telenovelas such as Telemundo’s Señora Acero 2, is the perfect choice to play Emilio Estefan. An incredible singer with impeccable comedic timing, Martínez even has a spot-on Cuban accent.
Nancy Ticotin, who plays Gloria’s mom, Gloria Fajardo, also brought a stunning voice and energized dance moves to the show. A veteran film, television and Broadway star, as well as a trained ballerina, Ticotin had some of the most tear-jerking and dramatic scenes onstage, as Gloria Estefan’s relationship with her mom was a bit rocky when she was younger.
“Alex Dinelaris, the Oscar-winning book writer [of On Your Feet!, who also wrote] Birdman — thank God we hired him before he won the Oscar or he would’ve been too expensive — told us, ‘You guys are a nightmare to write for, you have no conflict.’ So I [said], ‘All right, let me introduce you to my mom,’” Gloria explained. “I lost her a year ago today, so when I see the show now, it has so much more meaning because she was happy to see [how] her life was portrayed. She didn’t actually see it because she thought she’d be too emotional and I didn’t want to be guilty of killing her, but I read her the script, I played her the songs, I showed her the wardrobe. And she would send spies out to the show, so she knew the success that it had and she was thrilled.”
It's not just the lead actors who make On Your Feet! come to life but the ensemble as well. The dancers are breathtakingly talented and often steal the show, including the song right before intermission, the Estefan signature hit “Conga,” when they leave the stage and dance in the aisles of the Pantages.
Of course, the benefit of a jukebox musical is that so many of the songs are already well-known, making the performance sometimes feel more like a concert than a scripted musical. The integration of the hits is for the most part seamless: many songs in the Estefan catalog perfectly match the narrative and tone of the scene they're placed in. Finally, the live orchestra, which features five original members of the Estefans’ original Miami Sound Machine, is prominently featured onstage (a rarity for a musical) and definitely helps bring the songs to life.
However, the most important aspect of the show that elevates it above many of the other jukebox musicals around today is the relevance of its story. Both Emilio and Gloria were born in Cuba and emigrated to Miami with their families because of the Cuban revolution. They came here with nothing and became household names, beloved by millions of fans — a real-life depiction of the American Dream. The prejudice against immigrants is addressed many times throughout the show, such as when Emilio mentions signs on Miami apartments that read “No Pets, No Cubans” or when Gloria’s father is told by a fellow soldier in Vietnam to play some Diana Ross instead of a recording of his daughter singing because he “doesn’t speak Cuban.”
Sadly, these prejudices against immigrants, specifically Latin ones like the Estefans, are still around today, which makes it even more important for their story to be told right now. “We didn’t start with that thought in mind, we thought to tell our story, but it’s become ever increasingly important to tell stories about what immigrants have contributed to this great nation, how much we love it and how proud we are of America and everything it stands for,” Gloria said. “So I think that at this time it's very important to be sending that message.”
The show depicts not only the hardships the Estefans overcame as immigrants but also the recognition they finally received once they made it. In one scene, Emilio tells Gloria how he can’t believe the son of two Cuban immigrants shook hands with the president of the United States. “When you come to this country as an immigrant and you are tenacious and you have the resolve, you can live the American Dream,” said Bernie Yuman, one of the show’s producers and the man Emilio credits with brining the idea for the musical to him and Gloria. “Gloria and Emilio came to this country as immigrants, started farther back than a bare-footed runner and made their way to the top of the music industry. And they’re two of the most philanthropic people in the world. Tells you about immigrants in America.”
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The actors in the show understand the importance of the Estefans’ story, too. “I’m from Miami originally and I’m Cuban-American, so to be telling the story of my people and where I come from … is an absolute honor,” Prades said.
On Your Feet! is an extremely entertaining two and a half hours, full of timeless songs and a heartwarming story — a story not only about talented people who pursued their dreams and made it big but also people who overcame barriers they faced because they were born in another country and immigrated to America. When Gloria, Emilio and their family went onstage after the show for the curtain call, Gloria shouted as she was leaving, “Dónde está mi gente?” (“Where are my people?"). She may have been talking to her friends, her fans or even to the Latin community. Or perhaps she was talking to the other immigrants in the audience struggling to overcome the obstacles that this country has set against them. If On Your Feet! can inspire immigrants, or inspire those who are wary of immigrants, to change their minds and, well, "get on their feet, stand up and take some action," then this is a vital story that needs to be seen by the masses.
GO! Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; through July 29; hollywoodpantages.com/OnYourFeet.