“On Your Feet!” is a fierce showcase of the Latin American culture in motion. The salsa-licious show, based on the lives of Gloria and Emilio Estefan, congas into the Segerstrom Center for the Arts Aug. 21 to Sept. 2.
The showbiz biography highlights the musical legacy and romantic saga of the Estefans through the songs that propelled Gloria and the Miami Sound Machine to crossover stardom. Emilio Estefan, who lived it in real time, is a co-producer of the musical.
“On Your Feet” is an exuberant songbook and the story of the gifted artist Gloria Estefan, who with her love and mentor, Emilio, overcame personal challenges to emerge triumphant.
Overcoming hardships to achieve the American dream did not come easily to the Estefans and that is a message actress Nancy Ticotin, who plays Gloria’s mother, believes audiences will take home.
“They worked for nothing for a long time, living in their van, driving all night to get to the next theater, the next gig,” Ticotin said. “They did it for free to promote themselves. The sacrifices they made to succeed are still things that people from other countries are willing to make to gain some success. The show resonates today because this is still America and its promise is still attainable with hard work, inspiration and ambition. Gloria and Emilio’s families fled Cuba for political reasons. It’s not as if they said, ‘I want the American dream.’ They created that once they were here.”
Ticotin is a seasoned Broadway performer and an accomplished film and television actress. She brings her theatrical experience to the role of Gloria Fajardo, the mother. She describes the part as dramatically demanding, comparing it to playing Anita in “West Side Story.”
She says, “In playing Anita there’s singing, dancing, acting and then there’s a dramatic turn in her character. That’s what I love about this role; I get to sing and dance but for me it’s also very dramatic, very emotional. I’m a bit older now than when I did Anita so I have much more to bring to this character.”
“On Your Feet!” is all about the music, that fusion of lively Cuban rhythms and stylized American pop. There is no denying that it seems to fit into the “Jukebox Musical” genre. The score is built around Estefan’s ‘80s chart-topping hits. But it is equally about the Estefan’s unstoppable drive as it is about their signature songs. Ticotin concurs, saying, “Oh, I don’t think it’s a jukebox musical. Academy-award winning writer Alexander Dinelaris has put so much into the book. He worked with and studied the Estefans for a year to really get to know their story and figure out the best fit for a song. He created a storyline with a plot that’s feasible and seamless. Every performance, I find something new in the words that I say, that’s great writing.”
Dinelaris was not alone in working with the Estefans to stay true to their story. Ticotin worked closely with Gloria for hours to really understand her role as Gloria’s mother. She says, “I talked to her about who her mother was, the style of their lives at that time and the impact leaving Cuba had on them. I learned that Gloria Fajardo was a spitfire. She had a degree in Child Education when she left Havana that was taken away from her so that when she came to the states she had to reeducate herself. She got a Master’s degree here and taught in the Miami school system. The Fire Marshall backstage at our Miami show told me Mrs. Fajardo had been his sixth grade teacher and that I was exactly like her, not in appearance, but in passion. I took that as the greatest compliment. She was stubborn and strong.”
One critic described Ticotin as a fiery presence that blazes through the story as Gloria’s formidable mother. Ticotin likes that her role is drama-packed. She says, “I’m the antagonist in the story. And because of me, everything happens. Gloria Fajardo never like Emilio. Her daughter had a Psychology degree when Emilio came along and lured her into another world, one that took her away from her domineering mother. She also resented her daughter having the career that she had wanted and that had been denied her in Cuba. She was so frustrated that she didn’t speak to Gloria for two years. It wasn’t until after the bus accident that almost took Gloria’s life that she warmed to Emilio. She saw his devotion to her daughter and they became close. It’s gratifying that when Emilio sees me he calls me ‘Suegra,’ which means mother-in-law.”
“On Your Feet!” is jam-packed with 26 Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machines hit songs, but it is a new one written especially for the show by Gloria and daughter Emily Estefan that is “the moment” for Ticotin. She sings the song as a duet with Emilio when Gloria is in the hospital bed and they reconcile their relationship. She says, “I love that moment in the second act when we sing ‘I Never Got to Tell You.’ It’s such a beautiful ballad and I get to sing it.”
Ticotin has more than one show-stopping moment in the musical. Because she is a dancer and had worked with choreographer Sergio Trujillo on Broadway, the big dance number in the flashback scene where Fajardo is performing in a Havana nightclub was intensified when Ticotin joined the tour. She explains, “The actress who played the part on Broadway wasn’t a dancer so it was kept simple. For me it was more energized with lifts, kicks and pirouettes. It’s all part of what I like about being in this musical; I get to do the two best numbers in the show.”
There is a party onstage every night with the ten-piece band (five are the original Miami Sound Machines musicians), playing their signature blend of hybrid guitar, synthesizer and Latin stylized rhythms. It is no wonder that audiences are dancing in the aisles with the company as “Conga” closes the first act. That, Ticotin says, is a highlight of the show.
“The Rhythm is Gonna Get You” on your feet, but it is Emilio’s speech when a record producer tells him that he should go home or change his name if he wants to successfully cross over to American music that brings the house down. He says, “I left my family in Cuba so I could come here for a better life. This is my home.”
And audiences go really wild at the line, “You should take a good look at my face because this is the face of an American.”
Come on baby, shake your maracas at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts Aug. 21-Sept. 2. For tickets and information: in person, the box office (600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa); Phone: 714-556-2787; online: scfta.org.