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Spanish debut of ‘On Your Feet!’ showcases Estefans’ universal appeal

Gloria Estefan wrote new Spanish lyrics for four songs in the jukebox musical, now onstage at GALA Hispanic Theatre.

Gaby Albo stars as Gloria Estefan in GALA Hispanic Theatre's production of “On Your Feet!” (Daniel Martinez)
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Seven years after “On Your Feet!” first conga-ed its way to Broadway, the Gloria and Emilio Estefan jukebox musical has arrived at GALA Hispanic Theatre for a vibrant Spanish-language premiere that plays not like a reinvention but rather the staging that was always intended.

The original English-language production, which ran at Broadway’s Marquis Theatre from 2015 to 2017 before touring the United States and shipping to London’s West End, garnered a reputation as a somewhat rote but reliable crowd-pleaser, thanks to a toe-tapping, hip-shaking songbook courtesy of the Estefans and their former pop group, Miami Sound Machine. But for a fact-based show that derives drama from the power couple’s attempt to “cross over” from the Latin market to the American mainstream, “On Your Feet!” resonates anew when staged mostly in Spanish with English surtitles.

Peter Marks's 2015 review of "On Your Feet"

That approach adds authenticity and heightens the hurdles the Estefans overcame to break through in an Anglicized industry. When the show’s dialogue pivots from Spanish to English late in Act 1, as a record producer (played by Grant Latus) resists the couple’s desire to release a song in English, the “othering” of the Estefans is all the more maddening.

For this production, subtitled “La Historia de Emilio y Gloria Estefan,” Esmeralda Azkarate-Gaztelu translated Alexander Dinelaris’s by-the-numbers book and Gloria Estefan wrote new Spanish lyrics to four songs. The show tracks the Estefans’ rise, beginning with their humble Cuban American roots and concluding with Gloria’s comeback performance after her 1990 tour bus crash and spinal surgery. Along the way, the musical draws depth from its portrayal of the professional and personal partnership at its core, and the multigenerational sacrifices that paved the way for the Estefans’ immigrant success story.

As Gloria, Gaby Albo deftly navigates the path from sheepish star to global icon while belting her way through such hits as “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You,” “1-2-3” and “Anything for You.” Samuel Garnica, who inhabits Emilio with a balanced brew of overt charisma and underlying intensity, shares the show’s cathartic showstopper “If I Never Got to Tell You” with Fran Tapia, a standout as Gloria’s bitter mother. Madelin Marchant makes the most of her welcome comic relief as Gloria’s grandmother, and Kamila Rodríguez charms in a fleeting but affecting appearance as a younger Gloria.

Although non-Spanish speakers may have trouble keeping up with the English surtitles, which needed some fine tuning at Sunday’s performance, that’s of little consequence for a show that’s more spectacle than story. On that front, director and choreographer Luis Salgado — who presciently played director and choreographer Kenny Ortega in the Broadway version of the show — delivers the goods. Amid Christopher Annas-Lee’s eye-popping lighting, Patrick Lord’s immersive projections and Jeannette Christensen’s candy-colored costumes, Salgado lets his sizable ensemble shine with boisterous dance breaks (on songs such as “Tradición,” “Cuba Libre” and “Conga”) and dreamlike diversions.

The band, shepherded by music director Walter “Bobby” McCoy, is strikingly situated on a platform above the stage, even if the production puzzlingly hides the musicians for most of the show. Still, their festive sound permeates the intimate space without ever overbearing the audience. As the skeptical record producer learns in the show, the appeal of the Estefans’ music — whether it’s performed in English, Spanish or a blend of the two — knows no boundaries.

On Your Feet! La Historia de Emilio y Gloria Estefan, music by Emilio and Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine. Book by Alexander Dinelaris. Book translation by Esmeralda Azkarate-Gaztelu. Directed and choreographed by Luis Salgado. Music direction, Walter “Bobby” McCoy; scenic design, Clifton Chadick; lighting, Christopher Annas-Lee; costumes, Jeannette Christensen; sound, Matthew Rowe; projections, Patrick Lord. With José Fernando Capellán, Gina María Fernández and Winsley de Jesús. About 2½ hours. $35-$95. Through June 5 at GALA Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th St. NW.