Exciting. Exhilarating. Tragic. Beautiful. Triumphant. These are just a few words that come to mind after seeing On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan at The Gateway Playhouse’s first show of its 70th season. It’s the compelling story of how the Estefans met and fell in love, how they faced adversity at almost every turn in their careers and the heartbreaking tragedy that almost extinguished Gloria’s bright light way before her time. The story is told through the music of the Miami Sound Machine, the songs Gloria and Emilio produced and recorded, and fit perfectly as the soundtrack of their lives.
Born in Havana, Cuba, Gloria spent much of her childhood caring first for her little sister and then nursing her father after he came back from the Vietnam War. Gloria’s mother was a hard woman, and she wanted to keep her children close. But Gloria was not meant to stay home. When Emilio first heard Gloria sing, it was as if no one else was in the room. Their attraction and chemistry was undeniable. Gloria’s grandmother—played hilariously well by Sydia Cedeño—is Gloria’s biggest fan and pushes the fledgling star into following her dreams to be a singer and songwriter, much to the protestation of Gloria’s mother, disapproves of Emilio from the start.
Marina Pires portrays the Cuban starlet, and she commands attention when she takes the stage—her presence, her voice—you cannot look away. Pires is no stranger to this role, having performed as Gloria on the National Tour of On Your Feet! and along the way she and co-star Eddie Noel met the real Gloria and Emilio. After countless shows and rehearsals, it is delightfully obvious that Pires and Noel are as close to the real couple as can be.
As Gloria, Pires’ movements will transfix you and her voice will allow your world to take a backseat because all your attention is on this actress who almost instantly captures your heart. It’s difficult to stay still in your seat during the signature “Conga” song, where Gloria and the Miami Sound Machine perform at various events—weddings, bar mitzvahs—anything to get their music out to the people when radio stations refused to play her tracks because they were too “Latino.”
As Emilio, Eddie Noel is just as magnetic as his counterpart. Also coming off the national tour with Pires, these two have nearly perfected the characters they portray. It’s widely known that Emilio had a very heavy, distinct Cuban accent and Noel plays his part to perfection. When he started belting out “Don’t Want to Lose You Now,” the audience was riveted, mesmerized by his voice, his presence and his deep love for Gloria.
In March of 1990, the bus carrying Gloria, Emilio and their crew to New York was hit by a truck and Gloria was critically injured with a fractured spine. At the height of her career, after extensive surgeries to repair her spine, she found herself semi-paralyzed. The heart-wrenching tragedy is played out respectfully on stage, and the raw emotion emanating from our cast is palpable. When our strong, always-in-charge Emilio is reduced to a sobbing mess at Gloria’s bedside, the audience is rendered speechless. We he sings “Don’t Wanna Lose You,” there was not a dry eye in the house.
On Your Feet! features hits from Gloria and Emilio that all know and love, like “Conga” “Anything for You,” “Live For Loving You” and so many more. It’s one of those musicals you’ll be singing long after the cast has taken their final bows. I dare you to try and stay in your seat during the finale, a mix of hits that you can’t help but move your feet to.
On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan is playing now through May 25. For tickets and information, visit thegateway.org.