No list of 80s pop stars would be complete without Gloria Estefan. For a time, her star burned just as bright as Madonna’s and as any child of the 80s will attest, her music was an essential feature of the decade’s soundtrack. Whilst today’s teenage music fans may not be so familiar with the Estefan name, her influence on popular music can still be felt. As one of the very first female Latin “crossover” stars she paved the way for acts like Shakira and Camila Cabello.
On Your Feet, which is playing this week at The Marlowe, first played on Broadway in 2015 and includes many of Estefan’s greatest hits. However, unlike many other jukebox musicals -such as the recent George Michael themed Last Christmas – which weave the songs into an unrelated story, On Your Feet uses the songs to tell the story of how they themselves came to be.
As a result, the musical offers much more than an opportunity for 80s nostalgia. Estefan’s story is a fascinating one. She was born Gloria Fajardo in Havana in 1957. Just two years later, Fidel Castro ousted the incumbent Cuban president (for whom Gloria’s father had worked) and the Fajardo family were all but forced to leave. Like many other fleeing Cubans, the Estefans ended up in Miami.
After arriving in the US, Gloria’s mother had to retrain as a teacher despite her Cuban qualifications, and as a result Gloria became a de facto mother to her younger sister. We are introduced to the young, unassuming, Gloria carrying laundry but it takes only a little encouragement from a friend for Gloria to burst into song and incorporate the sheets into a wonderful opening dance routine.
The scene introduces us to the competing demands and desires that Gloria will face throughout her life. The desire to please her mother, to care for her ailing father, and the demands of her burgeoning music career all pull her in different directions. Just like the sheets pulled tight across the stage, you feel that Gloria will be pulled apart.
But when a local musician, Emilio Estefan comes calling it is Gloria’s maternal grandmother Consuelo, played here by a show-stealing Karen Mann, who convinces Gloria to follow her dreams.
Alongside the simmering tension between career and family, the show also tells the story of the struggle Emilio and Gloria face to find a place in a music industry that operates according to rigid categories. Robert Oliver plays Phil, the music exec, who refuses to accept that Gloria could sing in English. For Phil, as for the music industry as a whole, Latin music was for the Latin market. With hindsight, it seems like a ridiculous attitude, but no doubt we owe that to the perseverance of artists like Emilio and Gloria Estefan and their subsequent success.
Philippa Stefani plays Gloria with great sensitivity capturing the gradual development of Gloria from a talented but shy musician into a superstar performer. And there is genuine on-stage chemistry with Sharif Afifi as his Emilio falls for the young Gloria.
The live band brings verve to the musical numbers and the ensemble dancing which accompanies many of the songs is excellent. Returning home after the show, I felt compelled to watch some of the original music videos and was struck by the lengths to which the show had gone to recreate the details of those performances, including some excellent lighting effects.
All in all, whether or not you’re a fan, I would highly recommend the show. By the end of the show, much of the audience was indeed on their feet!