TMR interview: Alina Gonzalez finds her rhythm as Gloria Estefan in Selma Arts Center’s ‘On Your Feet!’

Alina Gonzalez was surprised to learn how much she has in common with famed singer Gloria Estefan. They both had dads who served in Vietnam. They both grew up with a sister, abuela and mother in their homes. They both have sons who “toured” with them.

Then again, Gonzalez only has to travel to the Selma Arts Center for her leading role in “On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan,” now in its opening weekend. (It plays for three weekends through July 1.) Gloria Estefan continues to travel the world.

Interestingly enough, Gonzalez didn’t know all that much about Estefan before getting the chance to portray her. She does now, as she told me in a phone and email interview.

Q: It must be intriguing to inhabit a character like Gloria Estefan as you do for this show. Think fast: What’s the first thing you do when I say the word “Conga”?

A: Slightly panic, as I think of the lyrics and my quickest change of the show (thank you to my dresser, Melissa)! Performing this song reminds me of when I performed “Buenos Aires” as Eva Peron, as both songs require focus and dedication for such a pivotal moment for both characters. This is when Gloria is discovered for her talent on a different level and with a wider audience, so I aim to give it the justice it deserves.

Q: Your 3-year-old son, Jude, knows all the words to some of Gloria’s songs. What is his favorite?


A: His favorite song is “1-2-3” because he is very proud of his counting, and he gets to count to eleven in this one. I will say that for a couple of weeks, he wanted me to change the words to “I’m just gonna keep on dancing,” instead of “counting.” And yes, I accidentally do this on stage sometimes because of it!

Q: “On Your Feet” is a jukebox musical, but it’s more than just a revue of famous songs strung together. (And it’s not a fantastical story linked together with those songs, like “Mamma Mia.”) How is the show structured?

A: The show tells Gloria’s entire life, through the words in her original hits. The historical timeline of the release of these songs also fits perfectly with what was happening in her life as she grew into her career, lending itself to a well-written script. The show starts off with Gloria already famous and gives you a peek at her career, as she travels the world with her husband and son. This provides a baseline for the audience, as the show quickly transitions back in time to her life as a young girl growing up in Cuba. As the show progresses, Gloria goes through her teenage years living with her mother, abuela, sister, and father, whom she cared for due to his multiple sclerosis. She then meets Emilio Estefan, by way of her abuela, who encourages her rise to fame after hearing her sing for the first time.

Q: You didn’t come into this project as a Gloria super-fan. What did you learn as you did your research? What did you find you had in common?

A: I can say with confidence that I am now! While researching the role, as I often do with non-fiction characters, I was slightly amazed to learn that I have a lot in common with Gloria. Like Gloria’s father, my dad served in Vietnam when he was 18, well before I was born. Although Gloria’s father served in Vietnam while she was alive, this commonality between our fathers allows me to draw from my conversations with him about his time there, and bring those experiences on stage. Additionally, Gloria grew up with her sister, abuela, and mother in her home. This was my upbringing as well, and I attest my strength and drive as a Latina to those women in my life. My abuela, who I called Welita, was the driving force in our family, and we all still miss her today. Lastly, Gloria and Emilio traveled and toured with their son Nayib, which reminds me of my life with my son — who very much loves the spotlight.

Q: Tell us about your Emilio Estefan, played by John Piper. What has it been like working with him?

A: An extreme delight, to say the least! John has stepped into the role as Emilio with such a strong drive of bringing his character to life on stage, in addition to off stage. Since our first rehearsal, he has made a genuine effort to ensure that I am taken care of through rehearsals, as we felt it was important to build our friendship through this type of method acting. Our choreographer, Steven Montalvo, who worked with (the real) Emilio and Gloria, mentioned to us very early on that we had to ensure we brought their connection to the stage — especially John. Being that these two people are still alive and very much in love, even enduring their bond through the music industry, John and I made a promise to each other that we would do whatever it took to tell their ongoing love story. While it might be unnoticed by the audience, several moments we have on stage are a direct result of footage we encountered through our research together.

Q: Do you do anything special to sound or look like Gloria Estefan?

A: Yes! I really try to showcase her age through my voice as I progress through the show. I bring out some of her brighter vocal tones in the first act and move toward her deeper tones after act two. Through my extensive research I have also learned she had somewhat of a swagger in her interviews, and pronounced her “s,” “o,” and “r” sounds in a very unique way. When it comes to her Latin accent — that’s easy for me because I have one too.

Q: You’ve played famous people before. With someone like Gloria Estefan, you’re going to be playing to some people in the audience who know every note of her music and are going to be comparing you every step of the way. Does that make you nervous?

A: Absolutely! In fact, while my initial research involved studying the “On Your Feet” Broadway album (I am confident I am the No. 1 listener on Spotify), I moved my focus to Gloria’s recordings of the songs. This allowed me to add a second layer of interpretation, as I was able to hear the words straight from Gloria. I think that the biggest factor working against me during this run is that I am definitely not 5 feet 3 inches like Gloria, but will use my extra 5 inches to stand tall and drive her legacy on stage.

Q: What is your favorite song in the show?

A: Although it has been the most difficult from a music/technical perspective, my favorite song is “Wrapped.” The song takes the audience through a dream state, and brings all of the players in Gloria’s life to the stage, enhanced by the lights and stage effects created by Dan Aldape.

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Q: I love that you have your whole family involved in this show. Tell us about that. And can you give us an update on your theater life?

A: My partner of 10 years gets dragged into almost every show I’m in, and he always sees it coming before I do! To me, it all makes sense because Neil and I met through theater at the Reedley Opera house 10 years ago. He’d watch me sing on stage as he helped run the theater and build sets there. Three years ago, we welcomed our son into our lives, and I was secretly five months pregnant with Jude when I played Eva Peron at COS.

For this production, we did the “Jude exchange” at the Arts Center every day, with Neil arriving before it was time for me to rehearse, or what Jude calls mommy’s “hearsals.” This is how Jude came to know the entire cast as he would hang out in the Green Room, run around looking for Juan, and how he built a friendship with John Piper (who actually took over for Neil and me occasionally). I’m thankful that I have a chance to continue performing in addition to watching Neil contribute to the show with his own talents. Neil helped with set construction, including extending the top platform so the band could fit and building the center doors.

Q: If you had just five minutes to talk to Gloria Estefan, what would you ask her?

A: I would love to hear about her experiences traveling on the road with her son. She was able to reach her dreams of motherhood while rising to fame, and I get my small taste of that with this production. While I’ve been missing out on dinners and bedtime with Jude, I can’t imagine the strength she required on the road, while balancing her two biggest roles as a mother and famous singer.

Q: Choreographer Steven Montalvo previously lived and worked in New York. What insights did he have about Gloria Estefan?

A: Steven has been a dream to work with. His theater knowledge on this show’s initial production stages in New York, meeting Gloria herself, and what he envisioned for our version show, have been so inspiring. Through his experience with her, he shared that any time she entered the room, the energy shifted, and felt like the most professional, strong, kind, and sincere businesswoman had walked into the room. He told our cast that Emilio always had his eyes on her, ensured she was where she needed to be, and that his connection to her never broke even when they were in separate rooms. Having this direct insight to Gloria and Emilio provided such a strong foundation for our cast, and gave us reason and purpose. Steven’s ability to inspire us, while empowering us to find our own story through our moves, is everything an actor wants in a choreographer. He truly has a gift like nothing I’ve seen before, and we are so lucky to have experienced this with him.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: Thank you to Juan Luis Guzmán for driving this cast to tell the story of this show, and for reiterating that the story should be the most important layer. Prior to rehearsing, Juan led us through several character development sessions, cast bonding sessions, and had us watch footage of each cast member, which all provided such a strong baseline for our development through the weeks. This was my first experience with a director who encouraged us to approach our characters with value, empathy, and respect for their storylines.

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

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