The gloomy fall weather couldn’t stop the Miami heatwave from sweeping through Millburn’s Paper Mill Playhouse! The critically acclaimed stage production On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan by playwright Alexander Dinelaris made its New Jersey debut this month. With a career spanning six decades, the securement of 38 number one hits, and nearly 16 millions albums sold in America alone, the “Queen of Latin Pop” Gloria Estefan’s story is well documented or so you may think.
As the forewoman of the Miami Sound Machine, in just over two hours On Your Feet! dives deeper into the lives of pop music inventors Emilio and Gloria Estefan. Starring Linedy Genao (Dear Evan Hansen) as Gloria Estefan, Brandon Espinoza (Broadway’s SpongeBob SquarePants) as Emilio Estefan, Francisca Muñoz (PBS’s “Our Lady Lupe”) as Gloria Fajardo [Gloria’s mother], and Yajaira Paredes (Candlelight Theatre’s Clue) as Consuelo Perez [Gloria’s grandmother], On Your Feet! is a must see stage piece. From its intimate look into Latin pop's most celebrated love story, firsthand chronicling of the migrant experience, to its examination of intersectionality in business, On Your Feet! is the modern day American dream set to Billboard’s Hot 100 charts.
After a play wraps up a successful run on Broadway, by the time the whispers of a national tour rolls around it's quite easy for directors to find ways to cut corners in the attempt to reduce overhead costs before hitting the road. On the contrary, On Your Feet! director and choreographer Alex Sanchez, didn’t spare any expense in the production’s debut on the Tony Award winning stage of Paper Mill Playhouse. The entirety of the production’s original staging was not only present but elevated. Production stage manager Jeffrey Rodriquez and costume designer Emilio Sosa do a phenomenal job establishing authentic cultural references and environments to add texture to the story being told on stage. These nuances did not go unnoticed as the entire Latin cast and production team rightfully inserts their authority resulting in a spectacular final product. Lighting designer Charlie Morrison, comes in to perfectly moderate the production’s ebbs and flows adding emotional dimension as a silent narrator.
Where the production is housed is important to live theater-buffs, let’s be honest, what brought out the opening night’s sold-out crowd was the groundbreaking music of Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine. Leading lady Linedy Genao has big shoes to fill stepping into this role but with full backing of conductor Andrew David Sotomayor she does not disappoint. As a part of the production’s original understudy cast during its run on Broadway, Genao shines bright. Preserving the signature grace of Gloria’s vocals, Genao adds her own unique twist for flare. From the way she holds the mic, calls for crowd involvement, to her movements, Genaeo nails Gloria’s on stage mannerisms.
Closing ballad “Coming Out of the Dark” is positioned as the production’s vocal pinnacle. Genao effortlessly recreates Gloria’s triumphant return to music at the 1991 American Music Awards following her near death tour bus accident. However, even with the theatrical effects elevating Genao’s rendition of the timeless ballad, Francisca Muñoz’s performance of “Tradición” (translated to English) in the first half easily takes the cake. Muñoz’s raw delivery layered with the song’s placement in the production transports you back to the Cuban Revolution adding depth to Gloria’s story by way of her mother’s forced migration.
Despite the production’s many high notes, this doesn’t shield it from several major criticisms. The most noble being the lack of time spent on Emilio’s upbringing in Cuba as well as his adult life beyond his proximity to his wife. Although the title On Your Feet! implies viewers will learn more about the group’s mastermind, Brandon Espinoza isn’t given much stage time. This is a complete disservice to Emilio’s life story. Similarly to Gloria, Emilio’s unique life experience has shaped his professional journey as a producer. Unfortunately, on goers are left with many questions about this and more as the play ends abruptly.
Another critique worth mentioning is the absence of push back Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine received from fellow Latin music recording artists. The production addresses the record label’s push back as well as the promoters uncertainty but not their creative counterparts' resistance. Fellow theatergoer, Latin music expert, and cultural critic Sarah Vega of Dique! Media Network detailed this in our conversation.
“The history books have been kind to the Estefans. It wasn’t always this way. Earlier in their crossover career, the Latin music community wasn’t too fond of what the group was doing sonically as it created what critics claimed was a pigeonhole on how Latin music should sound,” says Vega.
“However, regardless of how people may have felt in the past, without the contributions of the Estefans we wouldn’t have some of today’s big acts including Bad Bunny,” proclaimed Vega.
Minor issues with production were a handful of sloppy stage transitions and messy wardrobe changes, but that can be chalked up to opening night jitters. Overall, On Your Feet! is a must see stage piece. From its intimate look into Latin pop's most celebrated love story, firsthand chronicling of the migrant experience, to its examination of intersectionality in business, On Your Feet! is the modern day American dream set to Billboard’s Hot 100 charts.
Experience On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio & Gloria Estefan for yourself! The production will be at Paper Mill Playhouse until Sunday, November 6, 2022. To view the full schedule and to grab your tickets, please visit my.papermill.org.
Photo by Jeremy Daniel. From left, Vanessa Sierra (as Rebecca Fajardo), Linedy Genao (as Gloria Estefan), Brandon Espinoza (as Emilio Estefan), and Yajaira Paredes (as Consuelo Perez) of On Your Feet! .
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