By JOEY JOHNSTON
Back when Alma Cuervo was a high-school performer at the Academy of the Holy Names — when AHN students were taken by their talented, charismatic, big-hearted classmate — everyone just knew she was headed for much bigger things in theatre.
Everyone, that is, except her parents.
"They wanted me to be a lawyer because I did well in school and I could speak well in front of people,'' said Cuervo, 66, with a laugh. "Nope. Lawyer wasn't going to happen. I knew what I wanted since I was 12.
"They were always supportive, but I guess they kept waiting for me to do something different. As time went on, they realized this wasn't just a fun activity for me. This was my love and my passion and my life. It has been just that. I've loved it and it's the kind of life I always imagined.''
Now it has come full circle.
Cuervo, whose career includes numerous Broadway credits, along with television and film appearances, returns home this week for On Your Feet! The musical production, based on the life story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan, begins Tuesday at the Straz Center.
Cuervo portrays Consuelo Garcia, the grandmother of Gloria. Her role was described as "wily and charming'' in one review.
"I wouldn't call it a large part, not by any means, but it has completely been filled with joy,'' said Cuervo, AHN Class of 1969, whose family members began arriving in Tampa from Spain in 1905. "I've loved working with the Estefans. They have been there since Day One of this show. They wanted it to be life-affirming and positive.
"This show is so much fun, you don't even realize you've been taken somewhere emotionally. Given what's going on in the country, I think it's a really important play. It's very affirmative. It shows the Latin culture's contributions to America. Because of that, a lot of things you might not ordinarily expect get applause.''
Applause never was a central focus for Cuervo's career.
From the start, she was transfixed with the process, the give-and-take, the craft, even the grind. She describes herself as "something of a loner … kind of shy,'' so many of the normal show-business trappings aren't her goal.
On Broadway, she appeared in Beauty and the Beast, Cabaret, Titanic, The Heidi Chronicles, Ghetto, Quilters, Is There Life After High School?, Censored Scenes from King Kong, and Bedroom Farce. She has appeared in the national tours of Wicked, Cabaret, and M. Butterfly.
But Cuervo considers her off-Broadway role in Road Show as a career highlight, mostly because it was her life goal to do a show with songwriter Stephen Sondheim.
Cuervo's former AHN classmates, mostly following her from afar, have delighted in the theatrical journey.
"Alma was extremely dynamic with extraordinary talent,'' said Pat Torres, who graduated one year earlier than Cuervo. "She was in every play, the Glee Club, you name it. She was just a cut above. She was destined for this.''
One of Cuervo's fellow AHN performers was Maria Dameron Moon, who studied opera and became well-known in the Tampa Bay area, mostly performing in community theatre and civic events.
"What a voice Alma had, a real stage voice,'' Moon said. "She was a great actress even in the 10th grade. Wonderful to work with. No ego. We all knew that if she pursued this, she would thrive.''
And she has thrived.
Cuervo said there's another side to acting, far from the standing ovations and having your name in lights. It involves loneliness, insecurity and having to prove yourself constantly. On balance, though, she wouldn't change a thing.
"The whole thing has pretty much been what I anticipated,'' Cuervo said. "I haven't spent much time unemployed and that's the hard part, the financial insecurity when you're not working, the panic. Luckily, I've been able to be useful in different areas.
There are boring aspects to acting, too, but that's in every job. I've loved it so much. I didn't mind. I didn't mind not building a family. In this business, leaving children and spouses can be really tricky. I made that choice and it was right for me. It's not right for everybody. It's kind of a gypsy lifestyle, even when you're based in New York or another city.
"But I find it all so very exciting, even the ritual of doing it so many times because the audience always changes.''
After earning an undergraduate degree at Tulane University, Cuervo was accepted into the acclaimed Yale School of Drama, where she was one year behind Meryl Streep. Three years at Yale — and a Master of Fine Arts degree — was the making of Cuervo's career.
"It was one of the most important things I ever got to do,'' Cuervo said. "So few people are accepted into the program. Just getting in, you felt validated. I felt challenged and creative and like I belonged.
"In this profession, you're always competing, always auditioning. Everything you do or say or wear is judged. So to know in your core that you know what you're doing is kind of important — and you know why you're doing it — that's what Yale did for me.''
Cuervo regards her AHN education in the same manner.
"The Academy's influence was profound,'' Cuervo said. "It gave me a sense of identity that still exists. I felt centered all my life because of the education I got there. You could trust people there. That was a big thing.''
While in town, Cuervo hopes to visit some old haunts. At least one meal is earmarked for the Columbia, so she can "eat the food that you can only find in Tampa.'' AHN friends have organized a party for Cuervo after one of the performances.
"When I graduated (from AHN), I left for college and never really returned to Tampa (full time),'' said Cuervo, who has lived in midtown Manhattan throughout her career. "But all the experiences are still a part of me. It helps make you who you are. It's always special to come back."
Contact Joey Johnston at [email protected]
.IF YOU GO
On Your Feet!
Directed by two-time Tony Award® winner Jerry Mitchell (Kinky Boots), with choreography by Olivier Award winner Sergio Trujillo (Jersey Boys) and an original book by Academy Award® winner Alexander Dinelaris (Birdman), On Your Feet! features the inspiring story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan. It will be presented at the Straz Center Tuesday (Oct. 24) through Oct. 29. For more information, visit strazcenter.org.