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‘On Your Feet!’ actor’s life echoes musical’s ‘story of resilience’

‘On Your Feet!’ actor’s life echoes musical’s ‘story of resilience’
Mauricio Martinez and Christie Prades star in the musical "On Your Feet!" which opens Tuesday and runs through Sept. 2 at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa. (Matthew Murphy)

Even though he has kept bladder cancer at bay, actor Mauricio Martinez must be careful taking center stage eight times a week in the musical “On Your Feet!” which comes to the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa on Tuesday and runs through Sept. 2.

The 40-year-old actor says that during the traveling show’s Orange County stint, he’ll have to make several trips to Los Angeles for “localized” chemotherapy.

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“Eight shows a week is a lot, and your body needs rest,” Martinez said from Denver, where “On Your Feet!” continues through this weekend. “You need to disconnect as well. It’s not always all about the work.”

But working hard as an entertainer has defined Martinez’s life since he realized as a young man growing up in Monterrey, Mexico, that his life’s goal was to sing and act. He went to New York at age 18 to study at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, then moved to Mexico City to work in its thriving film and TV industries.

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He was “discovered” on the show “Operación Triunfo México,” the Mexican version of “American Idol.”

“That pretty much started my career, and I [began] doing musicals and soap operas,” said Martinez, who also has released two music albums along the way. “I've always wanted to be both an actor and a singer, and so far it’s taken me to amazing places.”

The latest place is his role in “On Your Feet!” a “jukebox musical” that traces the rise of singer Gloria Estefan (Christie Prades) with Miami Sound Machine. Martinez co-stars as Emilio Estefan, the Miami Sound Machine member who becomes Gloria’s husband and collaborator.

“This is my crossover role,” Martinez said of his breakthrough to the ranks of leading men after years of toil.

He performed with the original Broadway cast of “On Your Feet!” before hitting the road with the touring company.

Christie Prades and Mauricio Martinez dance in "On Your Feet!" a “jukebox musical” that traces the rise of singer Gloria Estefan (Prades) with Miami Sound Machine. Martinez co-stars as Estefan’s husband, Emilio.
Christie Prades and Mauricio Martinez dance in "On Your Feet!" a “jukebox musical” that traces the rise of singer Gloria Estefan (Prades) with Miami Sound Machine. Martinez co-stars as Estefan’s husband, Emilio. (Matthew Murphy)

Martinez said he studied Emilio Estefan in Miami to try to perfect the songwriter and musician’s mannerisms, personality, accent and even the way he stands.

“I had the privilege of traveling with him, being with him in the studio and watching him work,” Martinez said. “He’s become a friend in the past year.”

However, the constant shadowing made the real-life Estefan a tad uneasy.

“He would laugh and say, ‘You’re making me nervous. Stop staring at me,’ ” Martinez said with a laugh.

Still, the musician allowed him a lot of poetic license with the character, Martinez said.

“It’s always nerve-wracking, especially in the beginning when he was there in the audience,” Martinez said. “But he’s got such a good heart that it’s become easier and easier as time progresses. But he always jokes, ‘Be careful, it’s going to rub off.’ ”

“On Your Feet!” features many familiar songs from Gloria Estefan’s career, including “Conga,” “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You” and “Turn the Beat Around.” But beyond being a revue of the Grammy winner’s greatest hits, the musical is a celebration of love and chasing the American dream, Martinez said.

“It’s a story of resilience — two people who knew what they wanted and overcame so many obstacles,” he said. “They fell in love along the way and they’ve created a beautiful family.”

Five members of the original Miami Sound Machine are in the touring production to back up Martinez and Prades, playing along to many of the tunes they helped introduce decades ago.

“It is a dance show, and the choreography is amazing,” Martinez said of the work by choreographer Sergio Trujillo. “The audience literally gets on their feet and they conga in the aisles with us. It’s a great celebration.”

The band for the "On Your Feet!" touring production features five members of the original Miami Sound Machine.
The band for the "On Your Feet!" touring production features five members of the original Miami Sound Machine. (Matthew Murphy)

An unwelcome stowaway that has followed Martinez on the road has been the bladder cancer that he has beaten four times. A recent bout with the disease caused him to leave the tour for three weeks, and he must continue chemotherapy and watch his diet and activity while on the road.

“I’m taking things slow, but this chemotherapy is localized, so that allows me to go on with my life,” said Martinez, who returned to the tour just this week. “It’s not as invasive as the standard chemo where you lose your hair and all that. It’s been quite a hard month, and I have to accept that.”

The cancer scare has given Martinez a more emotional connection with the themes of “On Your Feet!” most notably when he performs the song “I Never Got to Tell You,” which begins with the appropriate lyric, “Life can change so quickly.”

“I am a different man than the one I was last month doing this show,” he said. “And dealing with [cancer], my view of life is different. I have to let the stress [go] and be calm. Take it one day at a time.”

That living-for-the-moment ethos is a challenge, Martinez said. Like Emilio Estefan, he says he is constantly thinking about what’s next for him rather than enjoying the present. But cancer has a way of refocusing one’s priorities, he believes.

“Now my homework is to enjoy life,” Martinez said. “Right now I’m sitting down, about to have breakfast, having a conversation and really focusing. Maybe a month ago I would have been answering emails as I answered the phone. And right now I’m trying to be as calm as possible so I can be focused and have my energy and do the show.”

Though he may be finding work-life balance with the “On Your Feet!” tour, which ends in April, Martinez must look beyond the musical since any actor’s next paycheck may be as amorphous as where he lives. Which, in Martinez’s case, is currently nowhere.

“I gave up my apartment in Mexico City 14 months ago, and right now I don’t have a home. The tour is my home,” he said. “So when you're playing these characters that literally lived on a bus for years, I can relate to that way of life. It’s not going to be like this forever, but it is a transition.

“It’s been challenging, but it’s also been beautiful. We’ve created a family [with] the cast and the crew. They feel like home right now.”

Martinez believes his next step will be to set down roots in New York to continue acting and recording music. In the meantime, during the musical’s two-week run at Segerstrom, he plans to enjoy the summer weather, visit actor friends and head to Disneyland.

“I’m very happy to be back and doing the show that I really love,” Martinez said of rejoining the tour. “And I hope that people feel different when they exit the theater — feel moved, feel touched. It may look like it’s a jukebox musical, but it’s so much more than that.”

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IF YOU GO

What: “On Your Feet!”

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When: Tuesday through Sept. 2; 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays

Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

Cost: Tickets start at $29.

Information: (714) 556-2787, scfta.org

Eric Althoff is a contributor to Times Community News.

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