If the producers of “On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan” know what’s good for them (odds are, they do), they’re ad-bombing Spanish-language media outlets and pitching group sales 24/7. That’s the way to go with a surefire audience pleaser like this jukebox musical built around the life and career of Cuban-American superstar Gloria Estefan. Newcomer Ana Villafane (who originated the role in the show’s Chicago premiere) is a knockout in the leading role, the dazzling centerpiece of this flashy, splashy spectacle helmed by Jerry Mitchell.
The book by Alexander Dinelaris (“Birdman”) may only skim the surface of Estefan’s life, but there’s a lot of life to skim. Following a rousing production number (“Rhythm Is Gonna Get You”– what else?) to open the show on a high note, flashback scenes set in Miami quickly establish A) young Gloria’s phenomenal voice, B) her devotion to her father and touchy relationship with her mother, and C) the joyous Latin spirit of the show, expressed in the rousing “Tradicion.”
In no time flat, 17-year-old Gloria (Villafane, staking her righteous claim on this career-making role) meets her future husband, the dashing Emilio Estefan (Josh Segarra, making the girls swoon). And after auditioning for him with the very beautiful “Anything for You,” she soon becomes the showcase singer-songwriter in his band, the Miami Latin Boys — appropriately re-christened the Miami Sound Machine.
The only hint of conflict comes from Gloria’s reticence about performing in public. Luckily, she’s persuaded by the good advice (“What’s the use of writing songs if nobody hears them?”) of her grandmother Consuelo (the wonderful Alma Cuervo). There’s actually a more substantive source of dramatic conflict in hints that Emilio (now Gloria ‘s producer-manager) might be overworking his wife for the sake of his own ambitions.
But the sheer exuberance of the score (much of it from the songbook of Emilio and Gloria Estefan) and the soaring energy of helmer Jerry Mitchell’s razzle-dazzle production quickly put those thoughts out of mind. Instead, we’re directed to cheer on Emilio as he takes on the snow-white music industry for exposure in mainstream markets, fighting for the elusive crossover hit that will propel their Latin music into pop heaven.
The first act builds to “Conga,” the song that finally crosses over, validating Gloria as a bona fide star and becoming a humongous hit, not only in America but all over the world — including the Marquis Theater, where audience members spill into the aisles to join the conga line that is choreographer Sergio Trujillo’s most joyous moment in the show.
The second act explodes with a full-bodied version of “Get On Your Feet!” and continues the show’s up-up-and-away trajectory for Gloria, who seems eerily present in Villafane, with her powerhouse voice, performance savvy and little-sister resemblance to her role model. Even her flashy outfits (by ESosa) might have come from Estefan’s costume closet.
At this point, there are still no clouds of conflict darkening Gloria’s charmed life — although we’re all breathlessly anticipating the 1990 road accident that would leave the superstar paralyzed at the height of her career and give this uplifting show a shot of heart-searing pain.
There are hints of heartache, however, in her long estrangement from her mother, Gloria Fajardo, played by the electrifying Andrea Burns. The broadly written role is an uncomfortably shrewish one for both character and thespian. But a moment of glory dawns in a flashback to Havana during the revolutionary days of the 1950s, when Fajardo, a club performer, sings the heartbreaking “Mi Tierra” as she prepares to flee her homeland.
Plot-wise, the big breakthrough comes when Gloria identifies the Latin pop crossover sound she wants — the classical salsa rhythms of Cuban comparsas, with “a funk baseline and a strong back beat on the drums and all the lyrics in English.”
Structurally, the show builds to the full flowering of this Cuban-fusion sound, song after familiar song from the Estefan canon, mounted in full production numbers for Villafane’s dynamic voice, backed up by a robust singing-and-dancing chorus. It’s exhausting, and at times it makes you long for the bittersweet salsas of the Old World — but you can’t say it isn’t fun.