On Your Feet’s ‘Abuela’ Comes Home to Starlight

CATEGORY: Broadway
TAGS: Gloria Estefan On Your Feet

When the Broadway national tour of On Your Feet! opened May 22 at Starlight Theatre, performing on Starlight’s expansive, open-air stage was an exciting first for most of the cast. For principal actress Debra Cardona, however, it was a welcome return to a place that helped to shape her career.

Prior to taking the Starlight stage in the role of Consuelo, Gloria Estefan’s abuela (grandmother), Cardona had performed in 10 other musicals at Starlight over the past three decades. Her previous Starlight credits are Cinderella (1987), The Wizard of Oz (1991), South Pacific (1991), The Music Man (1992), Peter Pan (1992), Big River (1993), Oliver! (1993), Phantom of the Opera (1996), The Wizard of Oz (1997) and, most recently, Mary Poppins (2015).

Cardona indulged our curiosity by answering some questions about her history at Starlight and sharing her thoughts about now performing here in On Your Feet!:

Q. Looking back, how would you describe your past experiences at Starlight?

DC. I remember way back before the stage was covered (pre-2000) and the air-conditioned rehearsal studios (pre-2006) were built. We rehearsed outside in the open-air pavilion behind the dressing rooms. There was only a giant fan to cool us during rehearsal, and we downed a great deal of Gatorade each day. Before the show, Bob Rohlf, who ran Starlight while I was here in the 1980s and 1990s, would make a little speech before the show, and we always sang “The Star Spangled Banner” every night, just like we still do now. Because the stage wasn’t covered, we were truly performing under the stars. That meant sets would sometimes get blown around and rained on. I have to admit, I do miss seeing the sky above my head while performing now that the stage is covered. The experience of walking on stage and seeing all those people in the audience is still completely awesome. It’s overwhelming at first but always fun. There are only a few venues like this left in the United States, and I count myself lucky to have had the chance to perform in a couple of them.
Q. Has anything from your days and nights at Starlight stuck with you?

DC. What stuck with me was how Starlight and Kansas City felt like my home away from home! I made friends here that I will have my entire life. I started out in the chorus, and I got to hone my craft onstage. Working at Starlight gave me my first experiences working with celebrities who I had grown up watching on television and greatly admired. I got so much professional experience here. I was very lucky!
Q. Is there anything you particularly like or admire about performing at Starlight?

DC. A feeling of exhilaration comes with working on an outdoor stage with such an immense audience. It’s like doing a concert every night.
Q. On the first night of On Your Feet!, what was it like to return to the Starlight stage?

DC. I felt nostalgic from the moment I walked through the gates. So many memories came flooding back. Before I walked out on stage for the first time, I felt like I would burst into tears — it felt so darn good to be back! I posted something on Facebook, and a bunch of my friends who worked with me at Starlight started reminiscing. It was so much fun to read.
Q. What are you most excited for Starlight audiences to experience during On Your Feet!?

DC. I’m incredibly excited to share not only Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine’s music with the audience but to share a bit of our Latin culture, too. The music and dancing are beautiful. Believe me, it will be hard for anyone to keep their feet still! I think the audience will find that not only is the Estefan family story and their struggle to achieve the American Dream incredibly relatable, but that we all have more in common than we imagined. I also can’t wait to see 8,000 people up on their feet and dancing in the aisles by the end of the show!
Q. Do you have any fun memories or stories from Starlight you’d like to share?

DC. Oh, my goodness! There are A LOT of them, but I’ll give just you a couple:

The first time I set foot on the Starlight stage was 31 years ago in a production of Cinderella. I was not at all prepared for what it was like to walk out and see such an enormous audience. We were doing the first number, “The Prince is Giving a Ball,” and I was part of a line of girls skipping out onto the stage and I was positioned toward the back of the line. When I skipped out and saw 8,000 faces looking at me, I stopped in my tracks and my jaw dropped to my toes. I almost forgot the rest of the choreography!

Another memory is from a performance of Big River in 1993. Beth Ann Musiker, who was playing Mary Jane, had a mishap with her mic. It was not working at all, and she had to sing a gorgeous ballad. There was absolutely no way to project loud enough to be heard without the help of amplification. I was playing one of her sisters and was supposed to be watching her sing the ballad upstage on a set of steps. Instead, I came downstage, sat next to her and leaned my head in toward her face so she could sing into my mic. She sang the entire song into my head!

To learn more about Debra Cardona, visit www.DebraCardona.com and follow her on Twitter and Instragram @DebraCardona.

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