Ana Villafañe as Gloria Estefan in the new Broadway-bound biomusical On Your Feet!, directed by Jerry Mitchell, at Chicago's Oriental Theatre.
Ana Villafañe as Gloria Estefan in the new Broadway-bound biomusical On Your Feet!, directed by Jerry Mitchell, at Chicago's Oriental Theatre.
(© Matthew Murphy)

There's a potent combination of intimacy and spectacle in On Your Feet!, the new bio-musical about multiplatinum recording artist Gloria Estefan and her longtime husband and manager, Emilio. In the show's pre-Broadway run in Chicago, that story is bursting with heart and heat. Punctuated by eye-popping dance numbers and defined by emotional intensity, On Your Feet! has the makings of a smash. You will, in fact, be on your feet before intermission. Estefan's global appeal is rooted in Latin-, pop-, and punk-infused earworms such as "Conga" and "The Rhythm Is Gonna Get You." The music is ridiculously infectious, and its backstory is a life-affirming testament to the American Dream.

If it weren't true, the Estefan's story would sound like a clichéd soap opera: Two hard-working, talented Cuban-American kids make their way from unknowns to global superstars. Along the way they fall in love, overcome racist recording execs, and struggle with disapproving family members. In 1990, Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine are at the pinnacle of success, selling out stadiums, meeting with the President, and making millions. Then, tragedy: A horrific traffic accident leaves Gloria unable to stand, much less conga. But thanks to grit, determination, and the love of a good man, she triumphs, staging a moving comeback (and delivering a killer power ballad) at the American Music Awards.

On Your Feet! benefits greatly from its A-list creative team. Tony winner Jerry Mitchell (Kinky Boots) directs. Choreographer Sergio Trujillo (Jersey Boys) and Oscar-winning book writer Alexander Dinelaris (Birdman) are also on board. The 13-member band includes half a dozen musicians from the Miami Sound Machine. The show's explosive energy is evident immediately, when that pile-driving band unleashes a torrent of percussion, horns, and riotous keyboards. The sound is huge, vibrant, and matched visually by a dynamic corps of dancers that burns the floor with Trujillo's animated mash-up of salsa, conga, tango, meringue, and hip-hop moves. The production numbers are showstoppers, but they further the story rather than bring it to a halt. The dreams Gloria's mother sacrificed after fleeing Cuba, the Cuban community in Miami where Gloria grew up, the triumph of her first hit, the surreal, near-death experience that followed the crash – all these and more are rendered in movement that tells a story and songs that provide a context reaching beyond the confines of the pop charts.

The intensity doesn't flag when the show shifts to intimate moments of dialogue. Gloria's troubled relationship with her mother, her hard-won, post-accident recovery, and the resistance she and Emilio routinely faced from the recording industry give the show plenty of dramatic tension, even if the happily-ever-after ending is apparent from the start. It's a testament to the savviness of all involved that On Your Feet! doesn't slip into movie-of-the-week sentimentality. The show doesn't just deftly walk the line between emotionally manipulative schmaltz and emotionally honest storytelling. It congas that line. Dinelaris' book falters with Gloria's recovery. In the space of a few sentences, she goes from being unable to stand to casually getting up and strolling the length of the stage. Her recovery seems like magic rather than the result of years of agonizing physical therapy.

But that narrative hiccup is easy to forgive, in large part because of the show's radiant, kinetic cast. Ana Villafañe's Gloria and Josh Segarra's Emilio have charisma and chemistry to burn. Villafañe is a dead ringer for Gloria, and has the pipes to slay the score's fast-moving roster of hits and deep cuts. Segarra nails the palpable drive and understated decency of a man who refuses to compromise his goals or his beliefs, whether he's dealing with the withering disapproval of his mother-in-law or racist record company execs. Watching him go mano a mano with the bigots will raise the hair on the back of your neck and leave you awash in righteous joy.

As Gloria's mother Gloria Fajardo, Andréa Burns smolders with the resentment of someone forced to give up her own dreams far too early, and delivers a showstopper in a flashback to Cuba where Fajardo could have been a star had Castro not forced the family to flee. But the real breakout here is young Eduardo Hernandez, a bona fide prodigy as the young Emilio. When Hernandez launches into the celebratory "Conga," he raises the roof and brings the house down with sheer, unstoppable exhilaration.

Scenic designer David Rockwell puts the cast on a functional, flexible, and colorful set that capably represents everything from the Miami Cuban community where Gloria grew up to the arenas where she performed for tens of thousands.

The production deftly weaves a multipart love story as Emilio and Gloria follow their passion for music, each other, Cuban culture, and the America where they made their dreams come true. Resistance is futile with this show. Make no mistake: The rhythm is indeed gonna get you.