Theater Review: “Real Women Have Curves: The Musical” — A Glittering Glamour of a Production

By David Greenham

My advice: see this show in Boston before it settles into New York for what should be a long run.

Lucy Godínez (Ana) in the A.R.T. world premiere of Real Women Have Curves: The Musical. Photo: Nile Hawver/Maggie Hall.

Real Women Have Curves: The Musical Music and lyrics by Joy Huerta and Benjamin Velez, book by Lisa Loomer, additional material by Nell Benjamin, based on the play by Josefina López and HBO’s Real Women Have Curves screenplay by Josefina López and George LaVoo. Directed and choreographed by Sergio Trujillo. Music supervision by Nadia DiGiallonardo. Orchestrations by Bill Sherman and Cian McCarthy. Arrangements by Benjamin Velez, Joy Huerta, and Nadia DiGiallonardo. Music direction by Robeto Sinha. Scenic design by Arnulfo Maldonado. Costume design by Wilberth Gonzalez and Paloma Young. Lighting design by Natasha Katz. Sound design by Walter Trarbach. Video design by Hana S. Kim. Staged by American Repertory Theater at the Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, through January 21, 2024.

There’s no question that the A.R.T. has been playing the Broadway lottery for years. Recent entries have included the wonderfully sung revival of Evita, the magical puppetry of the Life of Pi, and a bold LGBTQ+ 1776. These efforts were moderately successful; it takes a supremely sure touch to mount the kind of groundbreaking production that will be pure gold in New York. It’s lovely to report that Joy Huerta, Benjamin Velez, and Lisa Loomer’s rollicking Real Women Have Curves: The Musical may have hit a mother lode.

The show, based on the popular play by Josefina López and the screenplay by Josefina López and George LaVoo for HBO’s Real Women Have Curves, revolves around a tiny dress shop run by Estela Garcia (Florencia Cuenca). Set in the Paredón Blanco neighborhood of East Los Angeles in 1987, the narrative explores the emotional, as well as the physical, curves of womanhood. Estela’s dress shop is a flurry of promise staffed by a powerful assemblage of determined women that includes Prima Fulvina (Sandra Valls), Pancha (Carla Jimenez), Prima Flaca (Shelby Acosta), (Rosalí) Jennifer Sánchez, and Estela’s steadfast mother, Carmen (Justina Machado). In the show’s opening number, the women sing how they “Make It Work” in a shop with a broken air conditioning system, faulty plumbing, and sewing machines in constant need of repair.

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

Despite their grit and drive, the women are faced with the constant threat of the US Government. They’re all undocumented workers and immigration sweeps are occurring constantly. Estela gambles big when she accepts a huge order from the entrepreneurial local dress broker Mrs. Wright (Yvette González-Nacer) for 200 dresses in two weeks.

Carmen recognizes that they need one additional worker if they hope to pull off this challenging job. Estela’s younger sister, Ana (the energetic and charming Lucy Godinez), has just graduated from high school and is an American citizen because she was born in the US. She’s the only one who has the standing to fight the landlord and the system without fear of reprisal.

Ana’s got other plans. A budding journalist, she’s secured a summer internship with the local paper, the East Side Beat. But, even more problematically, she’s received a full-ride scholarship to the prestigious Columbia School of Journalism; she is planning to move to NYC in the fall. Ana doesn’t yet know the full scope of her mother’s plans, but she has been reluctant to tell her and her father Raúl (Edward Padilla) about her academic opportunity, fearing that they’ll forbid her to travel across the country for school.

Ana settles on sharing only the news of her internship. Even at that, her mother balks. Ana protests, “What if I have bigger dreams?” “Sleep less,” her mother responds flatly. Carmen tells her daughter to put familia first, in the song “Blood is Thicker than Mole.”

Arusi Santi (ensemble), Elisa Galindez (ensemble), Christopher M. Ramirez (ensemble), and Yvette González-Nacer (Mrs. Wright) in the A.R.T. world premiere of Real Women Have Curves: The Musical. Photo: Nile Hawver/Maggie Hall.

Determined to both help the family and chase her dreams at the same time, Ana packs her days with work at the shop and writing articles for the paper as she sings “Always on the Run.” In the newsroom she meets the nerdy and affable Henry (Mason Reeves) — and a budding romance blossoms.

At 2 hours and 40 minutes with an intermission, Real Women Have Curves: The Musical zips along infectiously, energized by a compelling storyline, plenty of laughs, some delightful twists, and a musical score that features several songs that, to my ears, are destined to become hits.

Real Women Have Curves: The Musical also shines technically, with an emphasis on the fun and festive. There is much to praise here: Arnulfo Maldonado’s colorful set, Natasha Katz’s lighting, Hana S. Kim’s projections, and spectacular costumes by Wilberth Gonzalez and Paloma Young. Special kudos to the costume change between the final blackout and a curtain call where the entire cast sparkles. It’s a fitting end to a glittering glamour of a production.

All too often musical performances are hampered by sound that is just a little out of balance, or particular voices that are more muted than they should be. Not so here. Walter Trarbach and the sound team ensure that everyone, the performers and the band, is sonically crisp and clear.

Sergio Trujillo’s direction and choreography is smooth and enjoyable; the transitions between scenes are swift and flawless. But the heart of this staging, which takes it beyond good to truly great, is the cast, which superb. Lucy Godinez’s pizzazz never fizzles.

Lucy Godínez (Ana) and Edward Padilla (Raúl) in the A.R.T. world premiere of Real Women Have Curves: The Musical. Photo: Nile Hawver/Maggie Hall.

Highlight moments abound, including a heart-wrenching feature performance by Satya Chávez as Izel, a recent arrival from Guatemala. The actress lends her beautiful voice to one of the show’s recurring themes — the desire for freedom — in the hauntingly hopeful “If I Were a Bird.”

As Mrs. Wright, Yvette González-Nacer pumps out lots of high octane sass in “Be A Gringa,” a number that resonates with the spunk of early Barbra Streisand (Funny Girl era), which made her a one-of-a-kind star. And the second act actually stops cold with the arrival of the title song, “Curves.” This is a production number the likes of which you’ve never seen on stage before.

But Real Women Have Curves: The Musical is more than just eye-catching numbers. It has the full package, which should put the show on the path to a long and popular run on Broadway and beyond. Just as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights filled the stage with ethnicities we don’t celebrate enough, Real Women Have Curves: The Musical crowds the stage with body-types and characters that will pull in new audiences.

My advice: see this show in Boston before it settles into New York for what should be a long run. It’s fun to catch a hit early on. On top of that, the show’s reflection of this country’s sad love-hate relationship with immigration may also, hopefully, change some attitudes for the better.

David Greenham is an adjunct lecturer on Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the former executive director of the Maine Arts Commission. He has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 30 years.


  1. Bill Marx, Editor of The Arts Fuse on December 19, 2023 at 10:37 am

    This musical might be everything that David says it is. I would like to point out, because no one else will, an example of editorial malfeasance that undercuts critical credibility. WBUR’s theater critic offers a rave review of the production, which is fine. But nowhere in the piece is it mentioned that the NPR station, according to the A.R.T., is offering “Media Support” for Real Women Have Curves.

    What in the hell does that mean? “Media Support” is defined as “those media used to reinforce messages sent to target markets through other more “dominant” and/or more traditional media.” The station should be honest with readers and tell them — up front in the review — that it has some sort of marketing agreement with the theater company. Is arts criticism being reduced to serving up “reinforcing messages to target markets”? Looks that way to me ….

    • Hal Pinter on January 20, 2024 at 10:21 am

      no axe to grind there.
      perhaps you should disclose that wbur unceremoniously dismissed you years ago.

      • Bill Marx, Editor The Arts Fuse on January 20, 2024 at 10:54 am

        At this point in time it would be an antique axe — if I had one. I was laid off (not dismissed) by WBUR in 2006. I had worked at the station for over 20 years and won an Online Journalism Award for the arts magazine I created and edited for them. It was the precursor of the now-defunct ARTery. I then went on to teach full-time at Boston University, which owns WBUR’s license. I am now an adjunct at BU’s College of Communication, where I teach a class on writing arts criticism.

        This is the oldest dodge around, of course. Ignore the message — in this case journalistic malfeasance — and attack the messenger.

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