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Review: ON YOUR FEET: THE STORY OF EMILIO & GLORIA ESTEFAN is a Triumphant Homage to Trailblazing Icons at The Garden Theatre

Review: ON YOUR FEET: THE STORY OF EMILIO & GLORIA ESTEFAN is a Triumphant Homage to Trailblazing Icons at The Garden Theatre

The hallmark of a truly great stage production is one in which the audience are not just entertained by a story, but fully immersed within as if they are really there.

The hallmark of a truly great stage production is one in which the audience are not just entertained by a story, but fully immersed within as if they are really there. That palpable energy weaves through each row, coursing through the very veins of the theatre space, gliding along each arm rest, filling every seat and its occupant with a sense of being the fly on that proverbial fourth wall. Attending a stage show brings about an understanding, a social contract one might say, to participate within the realm of what the story dictates. Perhaps it is the stunned silence during an emotional breakdown in a drama, or a bevy of callbacks for a Christmas pantomime. Or, in the case of ON YOUR FEET: THE STORY OF EMILIO & Gloria Estefan, it is allowing that rhythm to get you as you clap to the beat.

This past weekend, I was fortunate to visit the Garden Theatre for its sold-out Saturday evening's performance of ON YOUR FEET. The 2015 stage show offers a dramatic and musical retelling of the lives and careers of Miami Sound Machine power couple Emilio and Gloria Estefan, in particular charting the latter's meteoric rise in Latin pop. Gloria's life lends itself well to dramatic interpretation - as a young woman studying psychology, her passion for music eventually changed the entire trajectory of her life and career. WIth her husband Emilio, their Miami Sound Machine became a trailblazer in 1980s Latin pop, taking the world by storm even if well-meaning executives in the recording industry doubted she could make an impact on Middle America.

As the story begins, we already see Gloria Estefan (Olga Intriago) comfortably at a high point in her career as she's leading a packed concert with 1987's "Rhythm is Gonna Get You" on the stage, while balancing parental life looking after her son Nayib (Noah Ceballos) off the stage. But nobody ever starts out on top, and we then flashback to her childhood, with young Gloria Fajardo (Gaby Rosario) sending a cassette tape to her father José (Jonathan Barreto), serving abroad in Vietnam. He plays the tape proudly for the boys, who marvel at her voice. Gloria's love of music is eventually fostered into a relationship with Emilio Estefan (Radamés Medina Meléndez) of the Miami Latin Boys, although mother Big Gloria (Leesa Castañeda) does not approve. She sees no future in music, especially since Little Gloria is already on track at university for a psychology degree. However, Gloria's abuela Consuelo Garcia (Blanca Goodfriend) encourages her to pursue music, recognizing the same talent in Little Gloria that Big Gloria had in her youth. The audience learns that Big Gloria, too, was a singer ("Mi Tierra"), but left it all behind after the Revolution when survival and parenthood became a priority. Thus begins a gradual and painful estrangement between Big Gloria and her namesake as Gloria and Emilio set out touring in the newly-renamed Miami Sound Machine.

Romance blossoms between Gloria and Emilio ("1-2-3"), as they tour with young son Nayib, but eventually come home to Miami to see family - including a bedridden and immobile José, suffering the late-stage effects of multiple sclerosis. Gloria wishes she could know what her father is thinking, trapped in a body that won't let him convey any semblance of emotion ("When Someone Comes Into Your Life"). Big Gloria continues to criticize Gloria for leaving family behind for her career, and blasts her when the latter says she's taking younger sister Rebecca (Brooke Herrera) on tour. Meanwhile Emilio is battling with recording executives to allow Miami Sound Machine to release a song in English. But nobody at the label believe in the song, so Gloria and Emilio set out to introduce the song to their fans in every conceivable way, making handshake deals with clubs and venues, doing gigs for Bar Mitzvahs and weddings, even taking on a Shriner's convention ("Conga"). One executive is finally convinced to go see a performance, soon recognizing its appeal and potential, and happily proclaims, "She'll be singing this song the rest of her life!"

Never one to rest on their laurels, Gloria and Emilio push for more English-written songs to cross over into the American market, introducing hit after hit after hit, including "Get On Your Feet," from which the musical gets its name. They're not content to hide behind "Conga" the rest of their lives. Embarking on a worldwide tour, Gloria is living the high life. She's got her supportive abuela by her side ("Live for Loving You"), a loving family, the admiration of the world. Still, the one fan she wants is always the one who won't be there: Big Gloria, her mother. She leaves a message on Big Gloria's answering machine shortly before a bus drive to her next concert. Tragedy strikes when her tour bus collides with a semi-truck on the snowcapped roads of New York. Initial reports are conflicting, including erroneous news that she died in the crash. This report reaches Big Gloria, who drops everything to fly to her daughter's side. The crash caused severe damage to Gloria's spine, requiring an emergency nine-hour surgery and the prognosis that she may recover, but never walk again. As the family pulls together to support Gloria ("If I Never Got to Tell You"), the rift between mother and daughter has now closed, while she faces the new challenge of rebuilding her life in the wake of such a devastating accident ("Don't Wanna Lose You Now").

ON YOUR FEET does an admirable job at turning this life journey into a story both compelling enough to hold an audience's interest, and entertaining enough to justify it as a musical of the jukebox variety. But, for a change, I enjoyed how the jukebox format gets employed here. Naturally, in a show about an entertainer, we'll get musical numbers that are diagetic to the storyline as we are watching a performer perform. But the show finds clever ways to turn songs from Estefan's library into traditional musical stylings. At a couple interludes in the first act, songs are used to represent the inner monologues of the characters, notably "1-2-3" to represent that first spark of love between Gloria and Emilio. Played on stage as a dance rehearsal, the lyrics instead suggest both partners' thoughts on each other as they can't deny the attraction they feel. Likewise, when the audience sees how multiple sclerosis has affected the Fajardo family, we get a deep-cut selection from the catalog as 1984's "When Someone Comes Into Your Life" allows José to share an inner monologue with the audience, as he otherwise can't speak to Gloria. The song blends into a bittersweet duet as both are singing together, yet feel so alone.

The show also employs a new song, by Gloria and Emilio, and written exclusively for the stage show. "If I Never Got to Tell You" follows in the same vein of "When Someone Comes Into Your Life," giving us that heartfelt love ballad being sung to a person who may not be able to hear it. It's a great complement to the former song, showing just how strong the family's bonds are, as well as how these characters best express themselves through their music. A lot of song selections in ON YOUR FEET are made to serve the story, thus making this a superior jukebox musical to other shows that simply want audiences to remember Such-And-Such Group wrote "This Song" and "That Song." If an audience just wants to hear the familiar favorites, they can go to a revue. When playing the game of musical theatre, story must always come first. Thus, jukebox musicals have their work cut out for them as they are limited to previously-written material that needs new context to serve the story at play. But, as I said, ON YOUR FEET wisely chooses songs that tell Gloria and Emilio's story. We'll not get hits thrown in just because the audience knows them. We get song choices that provide fidelity to the overall narrative. That some of these songs were among the biggest hits of the 1980s happens to be icing on the cake.

The Garden Theatre's production of ON YOUR FEET brings their 2021-2022 season to a close, but what a way to go! ON YOUR FEET is kind of production so full of life and energy that it makes going to the theatre an event again; seeing it in a packed and sold-out house made the night's performance all the more special. A lot of this can be traced to the amount of love and care that first-time Garden director Nick Bazo put into this production. Cuban-American himself, he's lived with the music of Gloria Estefan for much of his life, seeing her as much a part of his community as his own family. Under his guiding hand, every performance feels authentic, every line rings true. You can tell he's got such a firm and unwavering respect for the material, because it shows in every scene. Not just in how he works with his actors, but also in collaboration with every technical aspect that brings a show to life.

The Garden's stage has been home to countless productions, but each one treats the space as if it were bigger than life. For ON YOUR FEET, set designer Cliff Price uses two prominent pillars that extend semi-horizontally to create the illusion of a ceiling on stage - something we don't often see in stage production. And through these columns he creates different rooms that allow us to be within an outdoor concert stage or the confines of a small suburban kitchen. The flexibility of that set also can be attributed to the creative direction of its lighting by George Jackson. Jackson opens up the space on the set through a series of bright and vibrant light fixtures that shift colors based on mood, adjust its opacity based on location, and dims completely save for the isolated spotlight at some of the most intense portions of the show.

Bringing this all together before the actors even set foot on that stage are the above-stage musical accompaniment, a live band performing as if every song were tailor-made for a 1980s Miami dance club or a sold-out concert venue in Sweden ("It was like watching a room full of Q-Tips bouncing all over the place!" Emilio remarks in the show). Bert Rodriguez is the show's musical director, and he makes his eight-person band feel like a symphony of thrice the size. They certainly help provide the Sound of Miami Sound Machine, feeding off the energy of the performers, as well as reaching out to the audience who isn't always treated to live music at the Garden. In retrospect, live musical accompaniment for their productions is fairly new to the Garden. I humorously recall seeing a show a few years back and wondering where the orchestra would have been for that tiny stage before I realized it was just pre-recorded accompaniment when one of the singers was only every slightly off-sync during a number.

Of course, the clincher for any good show, technical qualities aside, will always be the human factor. How well do we relate to these performers on stage as they embody characters and voices not their own, but believable enough that they could be? The cast of ON YOUR FEET has done a truly impressive job in bringing to life such powerful figures that, like director Bazo, they too have looked on as one of their own. Olga Intriago portrays Gloria Estefan in a performance one can simply describe as iconic. Her singing voice so remarkably resembles Estefan's that I sometimes couldn't differentiate between her performance and my memory of Estefan's. When she's liltingly singing "Here We Are," I felt sense memories of listening to that song in the car on a drive home from a cousin's house. It's such an authentic rendition that someone off the street could mistake it for Gloria's voice. She brings the same dedication and intensity vocally to the rest of her performance as Gloria, delivering an approach to the person and character that shows both the strength of Gloria as well as her own vulnerability. Intriago is a master at giving the audience a juggling act not just with glamour and spectacle, but also with turmoil and heartbreak. Her scenes of struggle - first with her mother, then with rehabilitation - are among the strongest in the show.

Likewise, Intriago's co-stars hold their own playing opposite her. The lion's share of her scenes are with Radamés Medina Meléndez, who plays the Emilio to her Gloria. The on-stage chemistry they share for each other helps us believe just how much Emilio and Gloria love each other. Both Intriago and Meléndez are no strangers to the Garden, having performed in a few shows for the venue in the past. Because of this, there's a sense of comfort between the two of them, as if they've been scene partners for years. Meléndez's vocals - like Emilio's - are never at the forefront of the show the way Intriago's are, but when given a song, he has as much gumption and quality equal to his on-screen wife. Act Two's "If I Never Got to Tell You" is the highlight because it's such an emotional piece, a promise, a hopeful ballad that Meléndez delivers in spades. You can almost hear his character's voice crack through the lyrics, they're affecting him that much.

Meléndez also is benefited one of the singularly strongest lines in the entire show. At one point in Act One, Emilio recites a long monologue about how the recording industry is afraid to introduce their music to the rest of the country, because they don't know how to sell a Latin sound to Americans even though they've had huge international success. By the end of the monologue, after a hard-earned explanation of what living in this country for fifteen years has given him, Emilio steadfastly declares, "This is the face of an American," shutting down any excuse the executives try to give about their sound not being American. Upon hearing that line in the Garden Theatre, the audience broke into rapturous applause of agreement. Meléndez delivers it with such justified ferocity you can't help but wonder if Emilio was half as harsh in the real-life office.

Some of the harshness that Meléndez conveys on the stage gets directed to Leesa Castañeda, who plays Mama Gloria Fajardo. The tension between the two characters is apparent from the beginning, but softens by their "If I Never Got to Tell You" duet. Real-life Gloria Fajardo remarked, in retrospect, that "[Emilio] was the best thing to happen to [her daughter]... eventually." The show makes no qualms about how the two people disliked each other. Just as hot as the chemistry is between Intriago and Meléndez, we get an icy contrast between Meléndez and Castañeda. However, I must point out that Castañeda's approach to the role never gets played as a villain. Mama Gloria was never a villain to her daughter's story, and their estrangement stemmed from plenty of other factors. Castañeda thus gives a gentle, more forgiving approach to her character to make the audience understand and sympathize both sides of the estrangement. It's easily apparent in the Havana '59 flashback when Gloria sings "Mi Tierra," knowing it's likely the last time she'll sing the song in her native country.

These are the moments that make ON YOUR FEET such a strong musical, and the Garden Theatre's production such a monumental one. Within the intimacy of this theatre, through this masterful direction of performance and light and sound, we've been transported. ON YOUR FEET is such a hyper-specific lens to what the Latin music scene was forty years ago, and the Garden Theatre has reproduced it to a point that we may as well could have been watching this unfold live in the 1980s. It's difficult for me to imagine an industry where Gloria Estefan and her music was seen as innovative and groundbreaking because to me, they were always a part of the musical landscape of my life. But ON YOUR FEET reminds us that these kind of things we take for granted, that the artists we enjoy today, they were near impossible a mere half a century ago. The Estefans were trailblazers because they refused to be pigeonholed into categories that oh-so-conveniently excluded Middle America. Sure, they followed in the footsteps of popular Cuban-American artists like Desi Arnaz and Celia Cruz. But they also made the successful crossover into non-Latin content without sacrificing their sound to do so. Emilio and Gloria broke down those barriers without having to assimilate into the stylings that a particular audience wanted, because they knew their sound - a masterful blend of their Cuban heritage with American pop - was one the audience would love.

By the time the show's final medley plays - a four-minute journey through four decades of music - we are reminded that everything done on and off that stage was done for love. ON YOUR FEET is about a lot of things - breaking down barriers, creating a unique sound, overcoming adversity, but most of all, it's about love. We see the love between an artist and their craft. The love between members of a family. The love of a celebrity by their fans. Most of all, we see how all these forms of love will always triumph over whatever tragedy may befall them. Utilizing Estefan's 1995 cover of "Everlasting Love" helps punctuate that even further. This is a song originally recorded in Nashville to have a Motown feeling, but made popular by covers done by UK and Latin artists. It's got a universality that makes it appeal to different musical stylings, though the message always remains the same.

The Garden Theatre's production continues to remind us of that message, that a love for a figure and a culture and its impact can be preserved. It can be recreated under the right hands, with the right cast, to let us look back on a journey that was worth taking. When that line gets blurred between the show and the history it presents, everyone wins. Sitting in the audience among the blue-tinted finale, it seemed to bring us all back to Gloria's triumphant return to the stage in 1991, the moment she showed the world she would be back on her feet. And the standing ovation we gave to the Garden's intrepid cast and crew of ON YOUR FEET also became, in retrospect, a show of appreciation for a moment in time - one frozen in the past that lives now only in memory - that still makes an impact on us all these years later. That's not just the power of good storytelling, but the power of live theatre. Go to the Garden and witness it yourself.

ON YOUR FEET runs at the Garden Theatre through July 31, 2022. Tickets can be purchased here.

From This Author - Albert Gutierrez

Albert Gutierrez originally hails from Turnersville, New Jersey, where he saw his first stage musical - a high school production of West Side Story - at the age of thirteen. There... (read more about this author)

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