Any story about an outsider breaking barriers to become a resounding success is always a great one to hear no matter the gender, ethnicity, or country, but a story that includes Cuban rhythms and the style of the ’80s is one that deserves to be heard, seen, and danced to.
“On Your Feet” is a foot-stomping musical about the lives of Gloria and Emilio Estefan, the Cuban artist and producer who have won 26 Grammy awards and sold over 100 million records. The play covers the difficulty that this power couple had from being relegated to only being thought of as an act for Latin countries to becoming the Latin crossover act that has since been used as a measuring stick by other artists.
Before I continue, I must make note that I am of Cuban descent, so it’s natural that I had a different kind of connection to this play than others may have. However, I think the Estefans’ story is found across this entire country. It is a story of exile, Gloria left Cuba at a very young age fleeing Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution; a story about the struggle of fighting for your dreams while trying to cope with your responsibilities, Gloria had to balance being part of the Miami Sound Machine and taking care of her father who had multiple sclerosis; a story of living within two cultures, Cuban and American; and a story of overcoming it all.
Of course, if it wasn’t for the talents of Ana Villafañe, who plays Gloria, and Josh Segarra, who plays Emilio, the play wouldn’t spark the way it does. Villafañe not only has a striking resemblance to Estefan, but I actively challenge audiences to try and differentiate Villafañe’s and Estefan’s singing voice. Villafañe has that same power, rasp, lower register, and accent that fans love about Estefan. More importantly, Villafañe captures the hesitation, heart, and wide eyes that not only Gloria has, but that most first-generation Americans have. Segarra has the strong accent down and excellently captures the audacious vision that made Emilio go from a bandleader of a small Miami act to having a hand in almost all major Latin crossover acts since the ’80s. The one callback that gets laughs throughout is Emilio’s constant English vocabulary mistakes.
The emotions and struggles are highlighted by Estefan’s music. Party anthems like “Conga,” “On Your Feet,” and “1-2-3” bring a lot of life and shoulder shimmies—fans of the ’80s are going to love the outfits and hair. Yet, Estefan’s ballads help highlight the difficult moments in her life like the 1990 bus crash that almost took her life. In the play, “Coming Out of the Dark” helps paint her recovery. The creators have also done a great thing with using Estefan’s Spanish songs, like “Mi Tierra,” in flashbacks to her at a young age and her parents in Cuba.
In a time where many are eager to visit Cuba to get a taste of a forbidden island, “On Your Feet” is a great reminder that exiles like Gloria and Emilio Estefan, not governments, are the real reason why people are so interested in Cuba whether they know it or not. Exiles like the Estefans were the ones who gave people around the world a taste of the real artistry, passion, and hard work that lives inside the 13 million people on an island in the Caribbean.
“On Your Feet” will run until July 5 at the Oriental Theatre located at 24 W. Randolph St. For showtimes, tickets, and more information visit broadwayinchicago.com/show/on-your-feet-15.