On Your Feet tells Estefan story with joyful energy: Review

I was living in Syracuse, NY, when Gloria Estefan was critically injured in a tour-bus crash on her way to the snowy city and some 30-plus years later still vividly remember the news stations announcing her death.

Those announcements were premature, as it turned out, but the accident provides a dramatic punch in “On Your Feet,” the musical biography of the singer and her husband/business partner, Emilio Estefan.

The show is onstage at the Garden Theater in a snazzy production that finds the laughs and the heart in all the right places. The singer’s Latin and pop hits burst with percussion, trumpet and the synthesized sounds of the ’80s, thanks to music director Bert Rodriguez’s firecracker band. With these musicians, even laundry day can become a fiesta — and thrillingly does.

“Conga,” “Anything for You” and the title tune are among the musical treats but what elevates “On Your Feet!” Above other jukebox musicals is that the Estefans have a story full of vivid moments.

Both brought to the US from Cuba as children, the two had an instant attraction upon meeting in Miami, where Emilio asked Gloria to sing with his band. That attraction beautifully turns to flirtation then rapport then enduring love as played by the chemistry-laden duo of Olga Intriago and Radamés Medina Meléndez.

Director Nick Bazo does fine work keeping the focus on the couple among the show’s many bells and whistles, especially considering that they are surrounded by two vivid supporting characters: Leesa Castañeda plays Gloria’s domineering mother with vigor, while Blanca Goodfriend twinkles as she lands cuttingly comic as Gloria’s spirited grandmother.

Those other bells and whistles include George Jackson’s striking lighting that both gorgeously evokes the tropics and concert arenas, as well as a hospital in less happy times. Cliff Price’s versatile set creates intimate spaces among a larger public one — fitting for a couple who live so much of their lives in public. Sumalee Eaton’s costumes cleverly show us the difference between the public and private Estefans (and must be perfectly engineered for quick changes), and choreographer Katherine Almaguer Rivera has the enjoyably enthusiastic ensemble combine Latin moves, pop stylings and Broadway pizazz.

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None of that would amount to much, though, if you don’t care about the Estefans — and Intriago and Meléndez make sure you do. Intriago shows us a woman serious before her time, determined and fierce when she needs to be, and her voice is well-suited for the familiar hits. Emilio’s lightness must balance her seriousness, and Meléndez perfectly captures that tropical-breezy charm with grace and mercifully without cockiness.

In fact, their characters’ bond seems so strong that a critical moment in which Gloria’s hasty words wound Emilio needs more room to breathe so the audience can fully grasp its shock value.

A few other quibbles: In their duet, Meléndez and Castañeda could mesh their singing styles better, a few ensemble members who have big lines to deliver could make those moments bigger, and oddly the thousands and thousands of letters that inspire Gloria Estefan back on her feet are reduced to two small boxes — a visual letdown.

The elephant in the room during this production, of course, is the backstage turmoil at the theater — which in recent weeks has seen the departure of top artistic personnel, complaints from staff and artists about a lack of support from the board of directors, and the cancellation of next season’s first show, which was due to open in August.

None of that is reflected onstage in this joyful, energized “On Your Feet!” If anything, the musical demonstrates just how far the Garden Theater has come. With a diverse cast, live music and stellar production values, it’s a far cry from the fledgling community theater of a decade ago.

Theater lovers will anxiously be watching to see what comes next.

  • Length: 2:45, including intermission
  • Where: Garden Theatre, 160 W. Plant St. in Winter Garden
  • When: Through July 31
  • Cost: $27-$42
  • Info: gardentheatre.org

Find me on Twitter @matt_on_arts, facebook.com/matthew.j.palm or email me at mpalm@orlandosentinel.com. Want more theater and arts news and reviews? Go to orlandosentinel.com/arts. For more fun things, follow @fun.things.orlando on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

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