Christie Prades still remembers listening to Gloria Estefan's music in the car when she was a young girl. Back then, Prades' mother propped the Cuban-American icon up as a glowing example of the attainability of even the wildest dreams. Now, as an adult, Prades has taken that dream further than her mom could have ever envisioned by playing Estefan in the U.S. touring production of the Tony Award-nominated Broadway musical On Your Feet!
Prades' mother was in the audience when Estefan put her daughter on the spot by asking her — right onstage, in front of everyone — to join the touring production. "I remember just being so shocked and not being able to answer at first," Prades says.
She eventually accepted, and she's gotten the chance to know Estefan personally in preparation for her role. "I've had the privilege of sitting down with her, of going out to eat, of hanging out — just kind of seeing how she works, her mannerisms, the way she explains herself."
Prades describes Estefan as "an open book" and says she's been willing to answer every question Prades has thrown at her. That includes revisiting a painful event in Estefan's life, one that shook the music world and almost took the singer's life: the 1990 bus crash that broke her back. Estefan was told she'd probably never walk or dance again, but after intensive physical therapy, she regained her abilities. In 1991, less than a year after the fateful accident, she received a standing ovation after performing her comeback single "Coming Out of the Dark," standing triumphantly on the American Music Awards stage.
On Your Feet! explores the aftermath of the crash, and Prades mined a personal experience to connect with and channel Estefan's struggle. "My brother was in a really bad car accident back in 2006, when he was a senior in high school," she says, "and I remember him just being in the wheelchair and having to start walking in therapy again, and go through getting airlifted, and going through breaking so many parts, having rods put in him. It's something that I definitely have to tap into every single night and put my own emotions in it. I definitely have to balance the two out — how [Estefan] actually felt with something that really did affect me as a human being."
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Like Estefan, Prades' brother recovered, and both women have healed enough to joke about the hardships they endured. "It was so funny, we were actually making jokes about the rods [in their bodies]. I told her my brother was always hoping that he would go through the metal detectors and it would ring off. She was just like, 'Nah, it's too new-age.' Hers would start to ring off because it was earlier on, so the rods are different."
After growing up in a household where figures such as Gloria Estefan were emblematic of the promise America offered immigrants, Prades knows she stands on the shoulders of those who paved the way for a show like On Your Feet!, which boasts an almost completely Latino cast. The first show she booked was a 2013 Miami production of In the Heights, in which she performed for Lin-Manuel Miranda and which also puts Latino stories front and center. She sees her work in On Your Feet! as a continuation of that legacy and believes the cast and crew are changing hearts and minds every night onstage.
"How incredible is that," she says of her latest gig, "that we had a show on Broadway and now a show going all over the United States that is literally a story where we have permission to be nothing but ourselves, where it's OK to be who we are and to represent our country and to be proud of it? And I think it's definitely changing a lot of people's thoughts about us, about what we can do, about what we have to offer to the arts in general, and our capabilities. And it's a beautiful thing to see it blossom and to see people literally change their minds right in front of us."
On Your Feet! Thursday, October 5, through Sunday, October 15, at the Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-949-6722; arshtcenter.org. Tickets cost $29 to $200.