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Sunday, April 21, 2024

‘The conga you didn’t know you needed’: ‘On Your Feet!’ premieres at the Curtis M. Phillips Center

The Tony-nominated musical opened for a one-night-only performance as part of national tour

Gaby Albo and Samuel Garnica as Gloria and Emilio Esteban at the Philips Center on Saturday, March 30, 2024.
Gaby Albo and Samuel Garnica as Gloria and Emilio Esteban at the Philips Center on Saturday, March 30, 2024.

From the electrifying rhythms to the show-stopping choreography, “On Your Feet!” captivated audiences with an emotional retelling of the stories of Gloria Estefan and Emilio Estefan, Grammy-award winning Latin-American musical artists.

The national tour of the musical offered a one-night-only performance at the Curtis M. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts March 30, at 3201 Hull Road, delving into the pair’s peaks and pitfalls — and everything in between —  as they rose to fame.

Samuel Garnica, a Venezuelan actor who plays Emilio Estefan, said the show has two parts. The first act of the show focuses on the creation and rise of their careers, using hits such as “Conga” and “1-2-3” to drive the story forward. Unlike other biopic musicals, the second act takes the audience a long way behind the scenes of the Estefans’ musical career and into the conflict they encountered behind the scenes. 

“I think that the show has this beautiful aspect of healing throughout the whole argument about the show,” Garnica said. “It not just touches the story of these two immigrants who came to this country following their dreams and being strong with their ideals, but also these very related topics with family.”

Garnica was a part of the world premiere of “On Your Feet!” performed in Spanish in 2022 and auditioned for the national tour while still a part of the production. Since being in the show, he has met both Gloria and Emilio Estefan three times. 

“As an actor, having the chance to meet the person you are portraying is just amazing and a blessing,” he said. 

As an immigrant who’s immersed in a world of music, Garnica said he feels closely related to Emilio because they both came to the United States with the ideal of using art to impact future generations through music. 

“We can use art as a way to show people new realities and create impact, and inspire the next generation of immigrants coming to this country,” Garnica said. “It’s an aspect that inspired me most when I’m doing the show.”

The jukebox musical uses songs strictly created by the 26-time Grammy award winning husband-and-wife duo to tell their story. In creating the show, the Estefans said one theme stands out more than most: inspiration. 

“Music was the biggest thing that got us through our life, and hopefully our music can also inspire other people as well,” Gloria Estefan said on the “On Your Feet!” website. 

Estefan’s aspiration certainly came true in Gainesville. For the final number of the musical, audience members of different ages, races and backgrounds did as the title suggested, rising to their feet to sing and dance along to the “mega mix” of some of Gloria Estefan’s greatest hits. 

The party didn’t end when the show did. Long after the cast and musicians exited the stage, audience members continued to dance and hum along to “Conga” while exiting the theater and beginning the trek to the parking garage. 

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Kristen Tarragó, a New York City-based actress who plays Gloria Fajardo and understudies Gloria Estefan, said the audiences she’s seen while touring the U.S. have given similar responses. 

“It is impossible to leave the show without a smile and some sort of dance move,” she said. “It’s the unexpected conga you didn’t know you needed.”

Playing two characters on this tour, Tarragó said she deeply connected with the content of the show. Tarragó is Cuban, just like the Estefans, and said she is proud to represent her country, especially with the recent Cuban protests in response to the food and power shortages. 

“Being able to go around the United States with this story about my country’s island is really powerful, because I think that it’s not a country that maybe a lot of people think of, but it’s everything to me,” she said. “It’s really awesome to share their story a little bit and also shine some light on the country. It’s really special to be able to do that.”

While both Tarragó and Garnica both share a love for the respective characters they play, they also share a love for their cast and crew. 

“It’s not an easy thing to travel the way we do, and to do our show is a very demanding show,” Tarragó said. “What makes it easy is the love that we have for what we do and for each other.”

Garnica said the tour has been a challenging project where it’s been rare to spend more than three days in one city. However, sharing this experience has allowed them to create a sense of community. 

When talking to audiences after the show, Garnica said one comment the cast often hears is how they truly look like they are a family on stage. 

“We feel [we were a family] off-stage,” Garnica said. “It’s a beautiful relationship we can have with this demanding work — just being able to do what we love as an artist, but also to have this community we created throughout this year.”

Contact Tanya Fedak at Follow her on X @ttanyafedak.

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