Thursday, July 18, 2024

Lucy Godínez as Ana in “Real Women Have Curves: The Musical.” (Photo: Nile Hawver Maggie Hall)

Ana (Lucy Godinez) is the second daughter of an undocumented Mexican family living in Los Angeles, and the only one to have citizenship. She has just received a letter from Columbia University admitting her as a college student with a full scholarship. Her sister, Estela (Florencia Cuenca), owner of a dressmaking business, though, has a huge order to fulfill and needs help. The sisters’ mother, Carmen (Justina Machado) expects Ana to work in the family dress factory with Estela. As the only U.S. citizen in the family, Ana has negotiating skills the rest of the family does not feel comfortable executing themselves. Ana is too afraid to let her parents know her dream of going to a prestigious school, as family, in her case, must come before individual desires. As Carmen likes to say to her, “You have big dreams. Try sleeping less.”

The dynamics in “Real Women Have Curves” will resonate for anyone whose family has newer ties to the United States. Fear runs deep, particularly among undocumented people, and the result is to stay as close to one another as possible. Everything one does should be done for the family, and the family – notably, Carmen – needs the income from the dress factory to stabilize. There is no room in this plan for Ana’s desire to go to college, and Ana is torn between guilt and resentment, between being the dutiful daughter and the woman she knows she must become. “I’m the daughter of immigrants. It’s like you’re born into debt,” she tells her friend Henry (the dulcet-voiced Mason Reeves).

It’s a beautiful, moving, spirited show that examines the bonds of family, community and sisterhood. The cast is uniformly excellent, and the score is a pleasure to hear. Arnulfo Maldonado’s colorful and vivid scene design provides the perfect backdrop for the action that takes place, which director Sergio Trujillo keeps lively and fluid. And despite some horrifying moments – “You all smell the same to me,” an INS officer tells Ana when she goes to visit a detained undocumented friend – there are some very funny and uplifting musical numbers that make the show a joy to watch. “Adios Andres,” sung by the factory women, is a farewell message to the menstrual cycle. As the powerful Mrs. Wright, Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer hilariously performs “Be a Gringa,” which extols the benefits of shucking cultural identity in favor of assimilation. “Curves” is a glorious celebration of the female body, which the women in the cast deliver proudly.

Godinez, as Ana, is the heart of the show, and she wears it on her sleeve for all of us to see and empathize with. Her voice is strong and emotive; we can feel her frustration, love and longing in all of it. A standout moment is the beautiful “If I Were a Bird,” which Godinez sings with the undocumented young factory worker Izel, played with conviction by Satya Chavez. The harmonies of their voices are pure and soaring. It’s rare that a musical has both a smart book and a smart score, and this one has both, as well as a committed and talented Latina cast. If you’re looking for some feel-good vibes this holiday season that isn’t all about the holidays, look no further.

  • “Real Women Have Curves: The Musical,” music and lyrics by Joy Huerta and Benjamin Velez, book by Lisa Loomer based on the play by Josefina Lopez and HBO’s “Real Women Have Curves” and directed and choreographed by Sergio Trujillo. Presented by the American Repertory Theater at the Loeb Mainstage, 64 Brattle St., Harvard Square, Cambridge, through Jan. 21.

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