At “On Your Feet!”, the rhythm IS gonna get you at Paper Mill Playhouse

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The cast of On Your Feet! on stage
The Company of On Your Feet! at Paper Mill Playhouse © Jeremy Daniel

The Estefans’ songs help deliver the more emotional moments

Yajaira Paredes has her hands Olivia Andrade-Marin while she's holding a laundry basket
Yajaira Paredes and Olivia Andrade-Marin in On Your Feet! at Paper Mill Playhouse © Daniel Rader

Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn opened up its 2022-2023 season with a rousing, energetic production of On Your Feet!, the musical inspired by the life story of musicians Emilio and Gloria Estefan. Featuring songs either written by the Estefans or made popular by their group, the Miami Sound Machine, the show covers their rise to fame in the music industry, as well as the roadblocks put in their way by studio executives, family disapproval, and Gloria’s long, difficult physical rehabilitation following a road accident.

We follow the story of teenage Gloria Maria Fajardo (Linedy Genao), blessed with musical talent. While her mother (Francisca Muñoz), also named Gloria, works to support the family, young Gloria takes care of her disabled father, José (Luis Villabon), and her younger sister Rebecca (Vanessa Sierra). While her mother objects to Gloria’s desire to write and perform, especially with the Miami Latin Boys, a group headed up by Emilio Estafan (Brandon Espinoza), Gloria finds encouragement from her Abuela Consuelo (Yajaira Paredes).

As the group becomes more popular, Gloria and Emilio fall in love and marry, much to the disapproval of Gloria’s mother. The group’s name changes to Miami Sound Machine since lead singer Gloria is definitely not a Latin boy. As their fame increases both within and without the Latin community, the Estefans face resistance to their ideas for the group’s direction from record company executives. 

That they were able to overcome and disprove that resistance, succeeding by going outside the constraints of the studio’s PR department, leads to increasingly long tours, which start to take a toll on Gloria’s relationship with her still-disapproving mother and her marriage to an increasingly career-driven Emilio. During one of these trips, a horrific accident severely injures Gloria. Her fierce determination to recover is the driving force for the end of the second act.

Linedy Genao wearing a red outfit with a white jacket and she's holding a microphone in her right hand and her left arm is reaching up above her head
Linedy Genao and company in On Your Feet! at Paper Mill Playhouse © Daniel Rader

Book writer Alexander Dinelaris has skillfully woven in the Estefans’ songs to help deliver the more emotional moments of the show, helping to create something more than just a “greatest hits” revue. He also avoids the trap of making the story a cliched, rags-to-riches bio-musical.

I found particularly clever the use of two of Gloria Estefan’s biggest successes — “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You” and “Conga” — to open and close the first act with enough power and energy to light up a small city while using medleys of songs, including “Get on Your Feet,” “Cuba Libre,” “Oye,” and “Everlasting Love,” to frame the second act and give the audience the feeling of being at Miami Sound Machine concerts. In fact, the second act finale medley was the first time that I literally saw people dancing in the aisles of the Paper Mill Playhouse!

With superb direction and choreography by Alex Sanchez, the entire cast is a joy to behold, uniformly excellent, from the top-billed stars to every member of the ensemble. Aside from Espinoza and Genao expertly playing the shared ambition and deep love of the Estefans, standout performances are delivered by Muñoz as Gloria Fajardo, who was herself a popular singer in pre-revolutionary Cuba; Paredes as Consuelo, one of those Latin women who is a pillar of strength and comfort born of years of hard living; and Kyle Laing and Vincent Ortega providing a measure of humor as music business executives. Special mention goes to Natalia Artigas, playing the younger version of Gloria, and Carlos Carreras in the dual roles of young Emilio and the Estefans’ son Nayib. 

On Your Feet! Is a high-powered show designed to raise the spirits and infuse its audiences with the energy of Latin pop music. It is a show suitable for the entire family, and it is a perfect choice for getting Paper Mill Playhouse’s new season off to a rousing start. You’ll be hard-pressed not to find yourself moving to the Estefans’ beat during this show. I wholeheartedly recommend making the trip to Millburn to see On Your Feet!

On Your Feet! Is presented by the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn through November 6th. For more information or to purchase tickets, go to papermill.org or call 973-376-4343.

Except for the performances of October 26th through October 30th, where masks are required inside the building, the wearing of masks is strongly recommended but not mandatory.

Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first live play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. He works in the box office at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.