A wise woman in musical theater once said you have to look for your life.
In “On Your Feet!,” an exuberant 2015 jukebox musical, Gloria and Emilio Estefan pursue their dreams of Latin crossover hits and world pop domination.
They break barriers, insist on recognition and find ways around the musical gatekeepers, all the while cranking out hits with Miami Sound Machine, members of which now play in the Broadway tour’s onstage band.
“On Your Feet!” is a dance party of a show. As performed by a tireless nearly all-Latino cast in Overture Hall through Sunday, two-plus hours in the theater fly by, begging the audience to clap and shimmy out of their seats.
“On Your Feet!” also tells a story of perseverance and positivity. This has new resonance in a country that, day by day, seems more openly hostile to its neighbors to the south.
At the top of the show, young Cuban-born Gloria steps into the spotlight reluctantly, an add-on to a band of boys led by a fast-talking dreamboat in tiny white shorts.
Gloria and Emilio fall in love, in song of course. Dance clubs love “Dr. Beat” and “1-2-3,” but Gloria faces resistance from her mother (the marvelous Doreen Montalvo) and dismissive music executives. Later, at the peak of Gloria’s fame, a terrible crash with a semi nearly sidelines the star permanently.
Christie Prades brings a sunny sparkle and confident vocals to Gloria, rocking a bolero in “Live for Loving You.” She jumps into the fast and furious dances, hips at full swivel.
And she channels Gloria’s strength of spirit in “Coming Out of the Dark,” the song that marks her return to music after an arduous recovery. “Famous,” a poignant song about Gloria’s complicated relationship with fame, is particularly lovely.
Opposite Prades, Mauricio Martínez’s Emilio has the smooth vocals and suave look of a Latin pop star. He quickly finds the humor and gentleness in Emilio’s relationship with Gloria, yet gets the persistent salesmanship right, too. He seems like a guy who’s impossible to say “no” to.
Book writer Alex Dinelaris skips lightly over the Estefans’ biography, mentioning in passing their marriage and birth of their son, Nayib (played Tuesday by the exceptional young dancer Carlos Carreras).
When the Estefans take “Conga,” their “rice and beans with hamburgers” crossover track to DJs, the white guy tells them “it’s too Latin.” The Latin American guy insists “it’s too American.” They’re stuck marketing directly to clubs.
Scenes like these mirror similar ones in other musicals (“Dreamgirls” most closely, but “Jersey Boys” too). This argument, though, sounds uncomfortably contemporary.
“Look at my face,” Emilio tells one exec. “Whether you know it or not, this is what an American looks like.”
Despite a few ballads more than necessary, most of “On Your Feet!” proceeds at lightning speed. Emilio’s speech, a mix of Spanish and English like many in the cast, is rapid-fire. Sets slide out mid-song.
It’s lovely, then, that director Jerry Mitchell offers a bit of miniature dream ballet amid the dance beats. To the song “Wrapped,” Gloria sees her life flash before her eyes as her younger self (Ana-Sofia Rodriguez) and warm, funny abuela (Debra Cardona) quietly encourage her through spinal surgery.
“On Your Feet!” is more of a musical stunner than a visual one, though Emilio’s Sosa’s glittery gowns and tight pants look more than fantastic. Occasionally, Kenneth Posner’s lights give the feeling of being inside a disco ball. Opening night was plagued by sound issues, with persistent feedback obscuring one poignant family flashback.
“On Your Feet!” will appeal most to those for whom Gloria Estefan’s voice already carries memories of middle school dances or personal loss. But especially in the upbeat numbers, the rhythms themselves are energizing, and the story moves fast.
To paraphrase Emilio, this is what our country looks like. Propelled by sheer grit and plenty of salsa, the Estefans’ story in “On Your Feet!” could not be more hopefully American.