Hit-filled ‘On Your Feet!,’ at Paper Mill, tells story of Latin-pop power couple Gloria and Emilio Estefan

on your feet estefan review

JEREMY DANIEL

The Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn presents “On Your Feet! The Emilio & Gloria Estefan Story,” co-starring Linedy Genao and Brandon Espinoza, through Nov. 6.

Gloria and Emilio Estefan’s company, Estefan Enterprises, was one of the original co-producers of the “On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio & Gloria Estefan,” which premiered in a Broadway run from 2015 to 2017. So, not surprisingly, it is — in addition to an opportunity to revisit the Estefans’ ebullient Latin-pop songbook — a very flattering portrait of the Diva Next Door and her husband-producer-manager.

The only dirty laundry in it is of the lightly stained variety. The rough patches in the relationship of the two main characters are only mildly rough. Drugs and other typical show-biz temptations never rear their ugly heads; the only rehab in it is physical rehab, after Gloria is seriously injured in a tour-bus accident.

There may not be a lot of the usual jukebox-musical drama in the Estefans’ story. Yet this is still a winner of a show, with enough of a plot to make it seem like more than just a flimsy construction around the catchy, familiar hits, including dance-floor anthems such as “Conga,” “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You,” “1-2-3” and “Get On Your Feet” and sincere ballads like “Don’t Wanna Lose You” and “Here We Are.” The book, by Alexander Dinelaris Jr., focuses, very effectively, on the underdog aspect of the Estefans’ story.

“On Your Feet!” is being presented at the Paper Mill Playhouse through Nov. 6, with Linedy Genao as the dazzling but still down-to-earth Gloria (though on the night I attended, understudy Vanessa Sierra ably stepped in), Brandon Espinoza as the sturdy and sensitive Emilio, and Alex Sanchez, whose previous Paper Mill credits include choreographing 2019’s “Beauty and the Beast” and 2016’s “West Side Story,” serving as both choreographer and director.

JEREMY DANIEL

Linedy Genao as Gloria Estefan in “On Your Feet!”

I don’t know about Genao, but Sierra was certainly able to pull off both sides of Gloria’s Estefan’s artistic personality, with high-energy performances on the pop songs and a mellow warmth on the ballads.

Natalia Artigas plays the young Gloria, whose talent and charisma is never in doubt.

“You’re an angel,” a minor character tells her.

“Joyful music for the world will be our responsibility,” sings Gloria.

Genao (or, the night I attended, Sierra) soon takes over as Gloria grows into a shy teenager who wants to study psychology but whose adoring grandmother Consuelo (Yajaira Paredes) pushes her to audition for the local wedding band the Miami Latin Boys, led by Emilio. (Like Gloria, Emilio is Cuba-born but now living in Miami). Gloria remains shy — and dances stiffly — for a song or two, but quickly comes out of her shell and Emilio, recognizing her talent, makes her the focus of their act and changes their name to Miami Sound Machine.

Of course, Emilio and Gloria become a couple — kind of offhandedly, as they are mainly focused on their music, always — and Gloria rises to full stardom as the unchallenged focal point of Gloria Estefan & Miami Sound Machine.

There are two big obstacles to the Estefans’ joint music-industry rise.

JEREMY DANIEL

Francisca Muñoz plays Gloria Estefan’s mother, also named Gloria, in “On Your Feet!”

One is Gloria’s mother, also named Gloria (and played by Francisca Muñoz). A singer herself, she never made to the big time, and resents Gloria’s success. Muñoz does a great job of showing her talent and her drive as well as how those attributes, not allowed to blossom as they did in Gloria, turned ugly. And, don’t worry, the show’s portrayal of her is ultimately more loving than mean.

The other obstacle is the music business, represented by DJs who think the Estefan’s music is, sometimes, too Latin and, sometimes, not Latin enough, for their listeners, and also by record company executive Phil (Jonathan Arana), who provides much of the show’s comic relief as he doltishly resists the Estefans’ attempts to escape the industry’s Latin music ghetto and reach mainstream (i.e., non-Latin, English-speaking) fans.

“You should look very closely at my face, because … this is what an American looks like,” a seething Emilio tells him.

In one amusing portion of the show, the Estefans, determined to make “Conga” a hit despite the lack of record company support, perform, in quick succession, at a bar mitzvah, an Italian wedding and a Shriners convention.

Phil eventually sees the light. And after the hits keep on coming, and Emilio takes a hard line on getting Gloria a $50 million contract, Phil asks him, admiringly, “How do you sit down with balls that big?”

The bus crash threatens everything. But Gloria survives, and recovers (with the perfect song for the moment, “Coming Out of the Dark,” bringing the show to its emotional peak), though it doesn’t look good at first.

“Is she a fighter?” a doctor asks Emilio.

“You have no idea,” Emilio responds.

The Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn will present “On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio & Gloria Estefan” through Nov. 6. Visit papermill.org.

Here is the show’s trailer:

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