A generation or so ago when I listened to Pop music on the radio (don’t judge me, that was the norm), my attention was caught by a new, infectious presence: the Miami Sound Machine, featuring Gloria Estefan as its lead singer. The band’s 1985 hit, “Conga,” turned a lot of heads with its unapologetic throbbing Latin pulse. A few years later when she sang “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You,” well, she already had me. I bought a cassette with some of her songs and just about wore it out in my car. (I repeat: This was a long time ago.)
She appeared at Riverbend in the mid-’90s and I was dazzled by her stage presence and her interaction with adoring fans. Over the years I collected seven or eight CDs of the Cuban-American star’s charismatic singing, both in English and in Spanish. Music platforms have continued to evolve, but the output of Gloria and her husband Emilio Estefan still has a contagious appeal, now captured in the stage musical On Your Feet!, which they had a hand in creating. The show’s tour is at the Aronoff Center this week.
On Your Feet! is definitely a “jukebox” musical — two dozen of the Estefans’ hits are performed, culminating in a spirited “mega-mix” — but like the best shows in that category (think Jersey Boys, about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, or Beautiful: The Carole King Musical), it tells a story worth hearing via a soundtrack that will leave you with earworms for weeks to come.
Gloria is the talent everyone knows, but Emilio has been her musical partner from the beginning. Seeking a woman’s voice to join his early group, the Miami Latin Boys, Emilio found not only a star but also his wife. They both emigrated from Cuba to Miami to escape communist rule but remained devoted to the country’s music and culture. Finding audiences for their fusion of traditional instruments, Latin rhythms and American Pop themes was uphill at first — and that push for airtime is part of the musical’s story.
After intermission, On Your Feet! digs into a 1990 bus accident in which Gloria was left seriously injured. In fact, news reports initially indicated that she had died. But after multiple spinal surgeries and a yearlong recovery, she came back; her song “Coming Out of the Dark” reflects her return and serves as the anthem to the show’s second half. It’s an inspiring tale of optimism and tenacity.
Eddie Noel plays Emilio on this tour, opposite Christie Prades as Gloria — the role she understudied during the show’s two-year Broadway run from 2015 to 2017. Noel first joined the tour in February 2018. But he auditioned the year prior, shortly after arriving in New York City from his native Puerto Rico where he had an extensive dance career. (He spent 15 years in Puerto Rico with Gíbaro De Puerto Rico, a national folk-dance company.)
“It was a hard decision to move,” he told me recently. “But I had to do that to succeed in what I wanted. Emilio and Gloria made a similar decision. I compare myself to them; that’s why I’m doing this. They say, ‘If you have a dream — make it happen.’ ”
Like them, his persistence and commitment paid off. A second audition brought him onto the tour a year ago, understudying the role of Emilio. Earlier this year he had a conversation with the real Emilio, who keeps a close eye on performers. (In fact, five musicians from the Miami Sound Machine are performing in On Your Feet!.) The day before Noel was offered the leading role for the balance of the tour, Emilio hinted that good news was coming: “Get ready. You’re going to finish this tour.” The next day, Noel’s agent called to confirm the news.
Noel related the advice Emilio gave him: “You have to keep it real, eight times a week. Remind yourself that you change lives every night, and you must bring that to the stage.”
Noel praises the show’s script, which was written by Alexander Dinelaris Jr. (a 2014 Academy Award winner for his original screenplay for Birdman). He’s also working alongside other top-notch talent: Director Jerry Mitchell has staged and choreographed hits that include Hairspray, Legally Blonde and Kinky Boots.
When Noel first moved to New York City, he came with a plan to sing, act “and spread my culture from Puerto Rico,” he says. “It’s so rich in so many ways. I’m very proud of that culture.”
Inspired by the Estefans, he hopes to launch a project to combine Broadway music with Puerto Rican instruments such as the cuatro, a kind of guitar, and maracas.
Touring has inspired Noel in several ways. Of meeting and working with other Latin American performers, he says that in the process of chasing their dreams — which is motivated by their mutual love of the art form — they’ve formed a family. And he takes genuine pride in his role in On Your Feet! — “a musical about chasing your artistic vision.”
At a time when some denigrate and show disdain for “immigrants” — even those who are U.S. citizens born in Puerto Rico — the showstopper in On Your Feet! happens when Emilio is told that his musicians should adopt Anglo names and lose their identity. Pointing to his own face, he says forcefully: “This is what America looks like.” Noel relishes performing that moment every evening. At the same time, he’s quick to add that anyone can relate to the Estefans’ story, whether they’re Latinx or not.
On Your Feet!, presented by Broadway in Cincinnati at the Aronoff Center, continues through March 24. More info/tickets: cincinnatiarts.org