TAMPA — At 17, Gloria Fajardo had the world at her fingertips. Bright and driven, with strong family support and a chance at success in the United States, the Cuban immigrant stood only to gain.
Alas, the very circumstances that frame her improved fortune since leaving Cuba with her family as "opportunities" also circumscribed her limitations; to borrow from one of her own tunes, they "cut both ways." Record producers in her newly found destination as a singer-songwriter saw the act she and boyfriend Emilio Estefan offered as a niche market.
Overcoming those perceptions forms the basis of On Your Feet!, playing at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. It’s a fun and energetic musical, sure to deliver a lot of what you came for. That its creators, a book by Alexander Dinelaris and direction by Jerry Mitchell, seemed so certain they knew what audiences wanted is mildly irksome, perhaps even more so because they’re mostly right. This is a feel-good romance that doesn’t even bother with much romance because it’s too busy with its humble origins (not quite rags) to riches arc. Except there isn’t time for that either, because they’re too busy turning the beat around and getting on their feet for the conga.
Luckily for them, Christie Prades is right in step as Gloria, the shy teenager whose musical talent takes her away from her original dream of being a psychologist. Prades, a swing in the Broadway show, is a natural in the role, imbued with rich vocals and a relaxed sincerity reminiscent of Estefan herself. The upward trajectory of her creative output, made possible by Emilio Estefan, the demanding leader of the Miami Latin Boys (then the Miami Sound Machine) who becomes her husband, runs into roadblocks over the same qualities that would make it a phenomenal success — it’s new and mold-breaking. Their band, which put English lyrics on a salsa beat, won’t work in the United States, a cardboard cutout of a cutthroat record executive (Devon Goffman as Phil) angrily tells the couple.
If they want to "cross over," Phil says, "Get rid of the horns. Soften the percussion. Change your name."
Instead, they felt the rhythm of the music getting stronger, the fire of desire, and the rest took care of itself in 1985 with Conga, the Miami Sound Machine’s breakout hit. Success didn’t improve relations with Gloria’s mother, Gloria Fajardo, who resents Emilio from taking her eldest daughter away from Miami, where her father is dying of multiple sclerosis. Nancy Ticotin adds backbone to the production as the mom, dishing out a caustic snappishness that would make any son-in-law sit up straight. The backstory of her own thwarted stardom, a casualty of the Castro regime, is told through flashbacks and a loving narration by Gloria Estefan’s grandmother, Consuelo (Alma Cuervo, the fourth pillar of this cast).
Look, there’s formula galore here, and major developments can happen in 60 seconds or less.
"Something is happening," Phil tells a higher producer at a key moment. "The sound is out there. We’ve got to get in front of it." So much for that, case closed. And so it goes. But On Your Feet! cannot be faulted for taking advantage of what has worked for at least half the musicals out there today.
Major biographical elements the public remembers get a refresher in the musical, including the crash of the Miami Sound Machine’s bus with a semi in 1990 that left Gloria with a broken vertebra. The close call leads to a duet between Ticotin and Mauricio Martinez, a Mexican telenovela actor whose lilting tenor bears up well as Emilio Estefan against Prades’ pipes for a believable portrait of music’s power couple of the 1980s. Martinez adds a comic touch as the sometimes temperamental artist who couldn’t abide condescension yet faced it constantly. Other notable performances include Jason Martinez in flashbacks as Gloria’s father and Amaris Sanchez, who showed a big voice as the young Gloria (and played hurt with a wrapped foot) on Tuesday.
Splashy lighting complements a huge band for a club atmosphere that invites the audience to the party, which lasts well after the final curtain.
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.