Review: A.R.T. Has a Hit with World Premiere Of REAL WOMEN HAVE CURVES: THE MUSICAL

The production runs through January 21 at the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge

By: Jan. 03, 2024
Review: A.R.T. Has a Hit with World Premiere Of REAL WOMEN HAVE CURVES: THE MUSICAL

The American Repertory Theater’s world-premiere production of “Real Women Have Curves: The Musical” – at Cambridge’s Loeb Drama Center through January 21 – proves that a serious story about the very real challenges facing undocumented immigrants can also be a funny, spirited, and joyous celebration of the power of family and community.

That’s especially true when they unite in support of each other, as they do in this warm-hearted, triumphant stage production created by a team of Latine artists and wonderfully well directed and choreographed by the in-demand Sergio Trujillo (“Jersey Boys,” “On Your Feet!”), who also directed the acclaimed 2017 A.R.T. production of “Arrabal” and is choreographing the new Broadway musical “Days of Wine and Roses,” which begins previews at New York’s Studio 54 on Saturday.

The Colombian-born Trujillo, the first ever Hispanic recipient of the Tony Award for Best Choreography, for 2019’s “Ain’t Too Proud,” moves his immensely talented cast of performers authentically through every emotion and every dance number, making for a must-see adaptation of the 1990 Josefina López play and the 2002 film of the same name, with a screenplay by López and George LaVoo.

Set in East Los Angeles in 1987, the story centers on teenager Ana Garcia – played with youthful confidence by the compelling Lucy Godinez – who is about to graduate from high school and is eager to head to New York to study journalism at Columbia University. Along the way, she frequently clashes with her traditionalist mother Carmen – a steely Justina Machado – who wants her to stay put and work in the family clothing factory, a point she makes in “Blood Thicker Than Mole.”

The mother–daughter dynamic can be a tough one and it certainly is here, with Carmen chiding Ana about her weight – telling her, “You could stand to skip a meal” – and sometimes even looking at her with disdain. Shaken, perhaps, but ultimately unbowed by her mother’s insensitivity, Ana demonstrates her resilience and aplomb on songs including the aspirational “Flying Away,” which could easily land on the pop charts.

Body positivity and self-esteem were primary themes of the film, and the stage adaptation’s well-crafted book by Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright Lisa Loomer (“Living Out”) and captivating music and lyrics by Grammy Award-winner Joy Huerta and Benjamin Velez, with additional material by Nell Benjamin, carry that forward while also subtly broadening the text by making Ana the only member of her family with American citizenship.

The uniformly strong score gives Machado a lighter moment in act two’s “Adios Andrés,” a humorous ode to menopause performed by the full company of factory workers after the decidedly middle-aged Carmen says she thinks she might be pregnant again.

Heading the company at the factory is Carmen’s older daughter, Estela, affectingly portrayed by Florencia Cuenca, who stays true to her goal of growing the family business while navigating through the uncertainties of her life. At work, that means keeping the power on both literally and figuratively. Expanding the business also requires entering into a risky deal with a demanding  buyer to produce 200 dresses on a too-tight, two-week deadline.

As Mrs. Wright, a cold-hearted fashion executive who’s done wrong by prior dressmakers, Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer is sensational as the stiletto-clacking client who offers Estela and her team some surprising advice if they really want success. That they opt to be who they are, in all their glory, instead is demonstrated in “Curves,” a show-stopping production number that’s a full-out, exuberant embrace of empowerment.

Shelby Acosta as Prima Flaca, Satya Chavel as Izel, Carla Jimenez as Pancha, Jennifer Sánchez as Rosali, and Sandra Valls as Prima Fulvia are the tightly knit team of seamstresses who movingly convey their need-driven commitment to work, and their heart-led devotion to each other.

Also worthy of note in supporting roles are Edward Padilla as Raul, stalwart husband to Carmen and father to Estela and Ana, and Mason Reeves as the puppy-doggishly endearing Henry, Ana’s friend and sometimes suitor.

Arnulfo Moldanado’s colorful and cleverly detailed set includes everything from a realistic assemblage of timeworn sewing machines to a mannequin-head-shaped mirror ball, while Wilberth Gonzalez and Paloma Young’s costume designs are colorful and character-perfect. Everything is shown off to full advantage, too, by the top-notch lighting design of Natasha Katz.

Photo caption: Sandra Valls (Prima Fulvia), Carla Jimenez (Pancha), Shelby Acosta (Prima Flaca), Jennifer Sánchez (Rosalí), and Florencia Cuenca (Estela) in the American Repertory Theater world premiere of “Real Women Have Curves: The Musical.” Photo: Nile Hawver/Maggie Hall.