If hadn’t been for her Cuban abuela’s (grandmother’s) encouragement, University of Miami student Gloria Fajardo Garcia might never have auditioned for an obscure musician named Emilio Estefan, and the world would have had to live without the disco hip-grinder “Conga” and the misty pop ballad “Anything for You,” which feels ready-made for a musical love story.
Perhaps it was only inevitable that the rags-to-riches, Havana-to-Miami Cinderella tale of Gloria Estefan would become a Broadway hit. Piecing together the musical catalog of the Estefans and a book by Alexander Dinelaris, “On Your Feet!” arrived in New York five years ago, and now it has come to Aurora Theatre in Lawrenceville, where an energetic ensemble tries hard to deliver on the promise that the “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You.”
Directed by Justin Anderson, “On Your Feet!” is a jukebox musical with a built-in, based-on-real-life narrative. Like “Jersey Boys,” the Estefan saga is fraught with tension. In this case, however, it’s not so much the transformation of Emilio’s unknown Miami Latin Boys to the chart-topping Miami Sound Machine that causes the drama as it is his wife’s family dynamics.
Before Gloria (Maria Bilbao) can heed the charge of her grandmother, Consuelo (the wonderful Felicia Hernandez), she must unpack the baggage of her domineering mother, Big Gloria (the excellent Lillianagina Quinones), and her sickly father, Jose (Arusi Santi), a Vietnam veteran with multiple sclerosis. The elder Gloria comes across as a Latina Mama Rose in reverse. She’s hurt and angry that her childhood dream of becoming a star was sabotaged by her father. (I won’t spoil the story.) She’s jealous of her daughter’s success and mad at the man who is making it happen. That would be Emilio, whose mixture of patience, devotion and steely determination is nicely encapsulated by Max J. Cervantes.
And let us not forget the time and place of this saga.
At its core, “On Your Feet!” is the story of immigrants trying to build a new life in a strange land. Cuba, with its tumultuous politics, tropical heat and steamy fusion of African and European music and dance, looms large in the Estefan’s musical revolution. Though their native tongue is Spanish, the duo insists on performing in English, to the chagrin of a hard-to-persuade music-industry mogul named Phil (played as a broad caricature by Conner Kocks).
Though it takes a while for their romance to gel, the spark between Emilio and Gloria happens right from the get-go, even as he urges her, in a scene reminiscent of “A Chorus Line,” to loosen up her dance moves. (Paging “Dr. Beat.”) Bilbao and Cervantes are polished and articulate singer-actors, and their performances help carry the show. As Gloria’s abuela, Hernandez is very good, a figure of elegance, beauty and, as time goes by, decrepitude. The scene in which a young Jose remembers his flight out of Cuba is tender and affecting, too. On the other end of the emotional spectrum, Quinones is terrific as Big Gloria, who, at first, has it in for her future son-in-law.
For those who had forgotten Gloria’s near-tragic 1990 tour-bus accident, and the dangerous spinal surgery and triumphant comeback that followed, “On Your Feet!” resuscitates the headlines, if somewhat turgidly. While Chani Maisonet’s salsa-driven choreography for a company approaching 30 is often a bit wobbly and amateurish, it hits a low in the scene in which a group of dancers does healing moves around the hospital bed of a sedated Gloria. Come to think of it, Jose’s convalescence (which also involves a bed) is rather sentimental, too, as is the scene in which the scarred (and scared) Gloria gets her gusto back by hearing her fans read their get-well notes.
But in one very important regard, “On Your Feet!” never lets you down, and that’s the caliber of the music.
For this, we must thank Aurora co-founder and music director Ann-Carol Pence. Her nine-piece band brings the sound of Miami to suburban Lawrenceville, and the show employs, serves and celebrates a Latin-American community that is often marginalized. Like Aurora’s dazzling “In the Heights” of 2016, “On Your Feet!” is a conga-and-chorus-line tribute to the joy and spunk of a new generation of Americans in pursuit of a dream.
One way or another, their “rhythm is gonna get you.”
“On Your Feet!”
8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays. 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. Also, 10 a.m. March 17 and 24. Through April 19. $30-$65. Aurora Theatre, . 678-226-6222, auroratheatre.com
Bottom line: Music soars in Estefan bio.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.