You may recognize Debra Cardona primarily as Hector’s overly involved mother on the CW’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” but the role is hardly her first turn as a maternal figure. The seasoned stage actress’s resume is peppered with motherly parts; character names beginning “Mother,” “Mrs.,” Ms.,” “Madame” and “Signora” dominate her C.V. But it’s her performances as an “abuela” that have stolen the show(s)—first, as “Abuela Claudia” in “In the Heights” and, most recently, as “Consuelo” in “On Your Feet!” In advance of the latter show’s June 5-10 engagement at the Hippodrome, we chatted with Cardona about her trademark roles, life on tour and what makes “On Your Feet!” so fun.
How did you become involved with “On Your Feet!”?
I had seen the Broadway show a couple of years ago, so I kept my eye on it to see if there were any openings. They were casting the tour last April, and I had just finished doing “In the Heights.” I auditioned, and a couple weeks later I got a callback, but nothing happened. The woman who had originated the role was going on tour. I kind of forgot about it for a while, and my husband and I were back in New York [from L.A.] getting our apartment painted when I got a phone call asking if I could go in for an audition tomorrow. I went, I auditioned, they liked me, and two days later I was on a plane.
Tell us about your character.
Consuelo Garcia was Gloria [Estefan]’s maternal grandmother. Gloria says Consuelo was a mentor to her. She pinpointed [Gloria’s] talent for writing and singing, saw how it transformed her and made her happy. She took it upon herself to give Gloria a little push, saying ‘this makes you happy. You love playing and writing your music. Go do it.’ With just a few more pushes, she was able to do just that. I’m having a wonderful time playing her.
Have you met Gloria or Emilio?
No, but they’ve seen a video of me. They’re coming to the LA opening, so I’ll finally get to meet them then.
Why do you think you’re such a natural fit for ”abuela” roles?
I’m of Puerto Rican heritage. They’re wonderful, warm, funny people, and so to have these musicals exist that really talk about Latino culture, that talk about how I grew up—I love it, I embrace it.
But grandmas are special for everyone. It doesn’t matter whether you’re Latino or not. When people come up to me after a show, the first thing they do is give me a hug. Grandmas resonate with everyone.
What do you like about “On Your Feet” in particular?
First of all, it’s a show about Latino culture, but it’s also about the American dream. A big part of it is the story of Gloria crossing over from Spanish language to American English and getting a lot of pushback. The show is the story of their [Gloria and Emilio’s] lives, and it’s a really beautiful story. It’s about family and your dreams and about the path to success and how hard you have to fight for it—and then what happens after. There’s a lot of fun in it. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry. Come see the show!
On Your Feet! will play at the Hippodrome June 5-10.