You don’t have to be Hispanic to fall in love with the full-figured Latinas celebrated in Josefina López’s Real Women Have Curves, nor do you have to travel to New York to see the crowd-pleasing comedy’s Broadway-caliber revival now playing at the historic Pasadena Playhouse.
First produced when López herself was only three years older than eighteen-year-old protagonist Ana, Real Women Have Curves lets us be flies on the walls of a small East L.A. sewing factory whose five female workers struggle to meet a seemingly impossible deadline, the factory’s future—and theirs as well—resting on their ability to complete a hundred dresses between Monday and Friday of a single, life-changing week.
Indie film buffs will recognize the play’s title from the 2002 movie adaptation that took Sundance by storm (and put America “Ugly Betty” Ferrera’s name on the map).
Radiant up-and-comer Santana Dempsey inherits Ferrera’s role as Ana, fresh out of high school and bubbling with a desire to study creative writing at NYU, a dream that might actually come true now that the aspiring author is but a year from being granted permanent residency in the U.S.
In the meantime, there is work to be done, most immediately the cutting and sewing of more than eight dozen Bloomingdales-bound evening gowns too pricey for Ana and her fellow dressmakers to even think about buying and too small for all but one of them to fit into.
Making the work even more pressing is the very real possibility that the factory owned by Ana’s 20something sister Estela (Cristina Frias) will have to close its doors if bills are not paid in full, thereby signaling an end to the ladies’ below-minimum-wage jobs.
Not that any of them have seen a paycheck in recent weeks, nor do they seem likely to see one any time soon.
As if this weren’t already enough, there’s also La Migra to watch out for since, unlike Ana’s legal (and possibly yet again pregnant) mother Carmen (Blanca Araceli), the diet-crazed Rosalí (Diana DeLaCruz), the still unhappily childless (Ingrid Oliu), and Ana herself with her temporary-going-on-permanent residency, Estela remains a deportation-worthy undocumented alien as far as the INS is concerned.
Like the recent Broadway smash In The Heights, the people we meet in Real Women Have Curves are precisely those being demonized by draconian anti-immigration laws (and a certain Donald Trump), and just as homophobia often comes from those who don’t know a single gay or lesbian person, racism thrives when Americans see the Latino community as “the other.”
Real Women Have Curves shows us how very alike we all are regardless of country of origin, language of birth, and weight of choice, and if its superb Pasadena Playhouse revival doesn’t get you rooting for its entire cast of characters to make it in the U.S.A., then perhaps you should spend some time reevaluating what it is to be an American.
Playwright López has cleverly tweaked her three-and-a-half decade-old play to bring it up to date from its original 1987 timeframe to the 21st Century with inflation-adjusted wages and prices and references to contemporary technology. (Ana is saving for a PC rather than a typewriter this time round and the younger gals comment on the dick-shots that seem to be a man’s social media calling card these days.) And if there is no mention of the 1987 Simpson-Rodino Amnesty Act that allowed the original production’s protagonists to secure their legal residency, ongoing immigration issues make these women’s struggles every bit as real as their curves.
Playhouse assistant artistic director Seema Sueko aces her second directorial assignment (following last year’s terrific Stop Kiss), inspiring all-around fabulous performances from her cast of five beginning with star-on-the-rise Dempsey.
For Real Women Have Curves to work, you have to love the leading lady through whose eyes—and hopes and dreams—we see these women’s lives, and Dempsey has you falling from the moment she takes center stage in a performance bursting with spunk and pep and vulnerability and heart.
Araceli’s feisty Mother Courage of a Carmen, Frias’s exquisitely layered, deeply felt Estela, Oliu’s tough-talking but emotionally wounded Pancha (she played Estela in the movie), and DeLaCruz’s food-and-self-esteem-starved Rosalí are all multifaceted gems of performances, the fivesome adding up to as stellar an ensemble as any American theater could hope to have grace its stage.
And speaking of stages, I’m guessing that López’s play has never before had a set as spectacularly authentic and minutely detailed as the one created here by scenic designer David F. Weiner.
Josh Epstein lights the factory’s dress-making machines, ironing boards, dress racks, mannequins, and other assorted paraphernalia to perfection, Cricket S. Myers’ expert soundscape adding realism and salsa to the design equation.
Costume designer Abel Alvarado outfits each woman in clothes that she herself might have shopped for (likely at the local thrift store), then shows off “Real Women Have Curves” fabulosity in the production’s pizzazzy grand finale. As for the women’s makeup and hairdos, they are in the more than capable hands of designer Raenae Kuaea.
Casting is by Julia Flores. Jessica R. Aguilar is production stage manager and Daniel Trostler stage manager. Additional program credits are shared by Joe Witt (general manager), Hethyr “Red” Verhoef (production manager), Brad Enlow (technical director) and Kristen Hammack (producing associate/company manager), and unless my ears deceive me, Playhouse artistic director Sheldon Epps does double duty as a radio news reporter.
Real Women Have Curves opens what looks to be Pasadena Playhouse’s most diversity-celebrating season to date and does so in the most satisfying of ways. It is, as they say in Spanish, algo que no se debe perder. In other words, it is not to be missed.
Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Ave., Pasadena.
September 13, 2105
Photos: Philicia Endelman