While political tensions over immigration flare, Westchester Broadway Theatre presents “On Your Feet,” the biographical musical about Cuban-American artists Gloria and Emilio Estefan. The Tony-nominated show, which premiered on Broadway in 2015, tracks the couple’s journey from lovesick Miami musicians to 20-time Grammy-winning artists. Their story, told through Gloria’s chart-topping hits — with book by Alexander Dinelaris — is ripe with discrimination, family strife and health scares. It’s an American dream paradigm, a comment on racism and a peek into the couple’s lifelong love affair.
It’s also a love letter to Cuba — men dancing to percussion-soaked salsa in straw sunhats, women twirling in long, flowy skirts. The show introduces Miami as a hub for Latino immigrants and a melting pot of cultures, where the heat and palm trees invoke a sense of home.
That setting is where we find Gloria, the elder daughter of Cuban immigrants growing up in the 1960s. Beautiful and guarded, she sings and writes music, but fears the spotlight and considers pursuing psychology. Gloria’s father, who is fighting overseas in the Vietnam War, and her abuela, encourage her to embrace her talent, but her mother warns against it.
Once Gloria meets Emilio Estefan, a charming, Cuban musician five years her senior, she stops questioning her future. Undoubtedly, she decides, her passion is for music and for Emilio.
Set to the Cuban-fusion pop music Gloria and the Miami Sound Machine made famous, the show depicts the barrage of glass ceilings the group faced in its early career.
Their sound was called “too Latin” by pop stations and “too American” for the Latin charts. “Female fronts don’t work,” a label executive said. Janis Joplin? Pat Benetar? “They weren’t Latin.” Even after finding success singing in Spanish, the group was told not to venture outside of its niche. “Nobody crosses over.”
But they wouldn’t take no for an answer. They knocked on the door of every radio station and dance hall until their new English language, Latin-pop single “Conga” got a bite. A big bite.
The song became a worldwide smash and set the stage for the Estefans to emerge as pioneering crossover artists.
The first act of “On Your Feet” follows the couple’s quest to stardom; the second examines their life in the spotlight.
The cast at WBT is overwhelmingly Latino (including ensemble members), which helps avoid the pitfall of caricatured stereotypes. Maria Bilbao, whose regional credits include “Frida” and “Evita,” makes for a gorgeous Gloria in costumes by Keith Nielsen. Her silvery voice doesn’t favor Gloria’s husky contralto, but with great control and power, she nails every number. She’s less successful as an actress, but her chemistry with Jose Luaces, who plays Emilio, is in tact from curtain to curtain. Their connection, palpable and genuine, is the glue of the show.
“I hate you.”
“I love you.”
Luaces, in contrast, is a stronger actor than he is a singer, but he satisfies on both fronts. As Emilio, he’s wildly lovable, winning audiences with his sweetness and languages flubs.
Choreography by Rhonda Miller includes nice partner work, though at times it seems to lag behind the music. The production offers a few smart surprises in terms of lighting and sound design, including audio from a 911 call.
Hats off to the seasoned supporting cast (Karmine Alers as Gloria’s mother; Gloria Fajardo; and Sandy Rosenerg as her grandmother, Consuelo) and the theater’s swinging offstage band.
“On Your Feet” runs at Westchester Broadway Theatre, 1 Broadway Plaza, Elmsford, through Aug. 4. Tickets start at $53; available at broadwaytheatre.com, 592-2222 or the box office.