It’s hard to explain the phenomenon that is Gloria and Emilio Estefan’s personal and professional partnership. How to describe to folks who haven’t followed their journey throughout the years (or gotten an earful of it from your parents) the “Conga”-themed rollercoaster that millions of fans worldwide rode—the heights of pride to hear Latino-influenced rhythms with English-language verses taking over clubs nationwide, the lowest lows of Gloria’s backbreaking bus accident and the rare turmoil that ensued in the Estefans’ highly publicized relationship? How to talk about the hope they inspired as individuals fighting to forge their path and reckon with identity and family drama? And as a couple going studio to studio, club to club with their band, Miami Sound Machine, to make U.S. market crossovers more accessible and fighting to maintain their marriage through the turmoil?
It’s even tougher to express the level of influence the Cuban-American pair has had on bringing music with and from artists of Latin American origins to the U.S. mainstream. The 26 Grammy awards between the pair don’t cut it. But just for fun, let’s start with a few names you might recognize: Shakira, who Emilio managed and helped cross over to an English-language audience in the early 2000s; Marc Anthony and JLo, both of whom Emilio coached in how to navigate the U.S. market; and Ricky Martin, who was part of a boy band, Menudo, that had just made a minor MTV hit pop music video when Emilio met him in the mid-1980s.
On both counts, the best way to start is with the story of Gloria, whose hits in the mid-1980s helped open up the gates and whose story of perseverance and mentorship of other Latinos alongside Emilio had a hand in keeping them open.
On Your Feet! The Musical – The Story of Emilio & Gloria Estefan, which premiered on Broadway in 2015, centers all of the above. For the first time, the musical, based on the Estefans’ true story, is running in Spanish, at one of the District’s favorite Latino arts organizations, GALA Hispanic Theatre. With that, this production delves into an even deeper degree of authenticity in depicting Gloria and Emilio, who grew up speaking to their families in their first language and speak en español when it’s just the two of them.
From the first silhouette of Gloria on stage and projected kaleidoscope of images to the big reveal of the live band playing above the stage and dancers in a frenzy, the opening scene of On Your Feet! La historia de Emilio y Gloria Estefan ¡En español! is just as epic and explosive as Gloria and Emilio’s real-life love story (at least, what we mere mortal fans glean from following them in articles, on talk shows, and at any galas we’ve scored an invite to if we happened to do a stint with the Hispanic Federation).
The production plunges the audience into a world of song and dance, albeit during clothes-washing routines (“Washing cleans the clothes, singing washes the soul,” young Gloria’s uncle tells her). Child actors Kamila Rodríguez (Little Gloria) and Winsley De Jesús (Little Emilio), both 2020 Pequeños Gigantes talent show participants, dazzle amid the equally musical lives of young Gloria and Emilio and their families.
A duet between young Gloria and her father, José Fajardo (the understated José Capellán), who is fighting in the Vietnam War in 1966, sets the stage for the heartbreak that comes shortly after: Her father succumbs to multiple sclerosis, one of the wide-ranging fates of veterans poisoned by Agent Orange. Gloria helps care for him throughout her youth but is unable to communicate with him in the ways she most craves. The intimacy of their song-letter to each other foreshadows another conversation between Gloria and her father’s memory during a tumultuous time for her following the 1990 bus accident.
We witness the jitters between a teen Gloria (Gaby Albo) and young adult Emilio (Samuel Garnica) develop into deeper feelings despite the tricky dynamics. Emilio is her manager, after all, and a demanding one at that (“Do it 95 percent better,” in Spanish, is his tagline to an overwhelmed Gloria and goofball band members during rehearsals). Their idiosyncrasies fuel a fast love story between these leads and the audience: Emilio’s lack of filter unwittingly does a number on her mother’s ego, and his coquettish ways laid thicker than ropa vieja sauce clash well with Gloria’s angst, sense of responsibility, and professionalism. Well-known nuggets from the pair’s romance lend to the endearment over Emilio’s sinvergüenza ways: Emilio had lied about his birthday on the 4th of July and asked for a birthday kiss on the cheek, then turned his head for full lip-lock while Gloria went in for a peck.
The risk in the romantic focus is that, despite a few bumps, their love life might be saccharine in parts. But depicting Emilio’s obstinance that they keep hitting up the tour trail and his disconnect from her pain during her recovery lends realism to the portrayal. From their first awkward meeting at Gloria’s house, the early crush stage shows signs of barriers that will only grow bigger later: namely, Gloria’s mother, Gloria Fajardo (the dynamite Fran Tapia), brimming with biting remarks and disapproving of Gloria’s new music career and love interest (“I’m 48, and I know 48 things,” she claps back at Gloria in Spanish during a fight over her daughter’s future). Fajardo and Emilio’s back-and-forths only make for a ceasefirethat’s all the sweeter after Gloria’s accident puts relationships into perspective. The same goes for the reconciliation after Fajardo’s longtime tensions with her daughter.
But she isn’t the sole matriarch to dominate the stage. An effective use of flashback introduces us to a younger Gloria Fajardo, one with her own early entertainment success back in Havana . She had gotten a Hollywood offer to dub Shirley Temple’s films in Spanish, but her father wouldn’t hear of it. In a sequence of sequins and dynamic dance moves, Tapia shows us a versatility that can carry two versions of herself across time, space, and spirit. The effervescent young woman we meet is worthy of the bar-spitting “Rapuela” of real-life “Big Gloria” Fajardo. The parallel is all too real between this past life of Gloria’s mom, complete with dreams dashed too soon after tasting success, and the path of disillusionment she fears for her daughter.
Tapia’s interpretation further highlights the subtle strength of our favorite fun-loving matriarch: her mother, Consuelo (Madelin Marchant). Marchant brings warmth, wisecracks, and even some sleuth to the role. True to her name, Consuelo consoles Gloria when fear sets in or she’s had a spat with her mother, plays matchmaker for her and Emilio, and even leverages her cooking to convince creepy execs to give Gloria’s song with the Miami Sound Machine a listen. From a single look to a one-liner, Consuelo calls the shots from behind, sometimes literally—“Terrible shorts, nice ass,” she tells Emilio in Spanish as he walks away during their first encounter.
Beyond the fun, familiar earworms by Gloria (you can’t not dance to “Conga” and “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You”) set to explosive dance sequences (courtesy of director and choreographer Luis Salgado), beyond the family drama, the book stresses the plurality of the American experience. When Emilio and Gloria meet with a record label exec, Phil (Grant Lanus brings the right degree of sleaze to the role), the businessman doesn’t have faith in their ability to do the English-language crossover with success. While Gloria puts up a fight, citing their contract terms, a relatively reticent Emilio later stares Phil in the face and leaves him with more unofficial terms: “Look closely at my face, because whether you know it or not, this is what an American looks like.” The ensuing round of applause sings.
Whether it’s a holiday weekend show or just another night at GALA, before long, you get the impression everybody and their mami is mouthing the words to a Miami Sound Machine song, swaying in their seats, and tearing up at the mother-daughter reckoning or the reckoning Gloria has with herself. It’s Broadway quality in a D.C. theater and with more in-your-seat interaction from a gem of a cast. The performance gets you out of your head, in your feelings, and ultimately “on your feet!”
On Your Feet! La historia de Emilio y Gloria Estefan ¡En español!, directed by Luis Salgado, written by Alexander Dinelaris and featuring music produced and recorded by Emilio and Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine, plays in Spanish with English surtitles at GALA Hispanic Theater through June 5. galatheatre.org.
Note: This post was updated with the correct spelling of José Capellán.