The Gardens of Anuncia ***1/2

By: Isa Goldberg

December 10, 2023: Unusual, in the world of musical theater, The Gardens of Anuncia is a delightfully understated work, and a departure for the writer/composer Michael John LaChiusa.  Delivering a sense of raw truth, in tumultuous fashion is more his style. 

Mary Testa and the company of “The Gardens of Anuncia”..

By: Isa Goldberg

December 10, 2023: Unusual, in the world of musical theater, The Gardens of Anuncia is a delightfully understated work, and a departure for the writer/composer Michael John LaChiusa.  Delivering a sense of raw truth, in tumultuous fashion is more his style. 

His screen to stage adaptation of the movie Giant– epic in nature, and contemporary in recognizing racial issues – is a strong fit. Building a musical with material that carries that kind of heft (Rock Hudson, James Dean, and Elizabeth Taylor) is LaChiusa’s gift.

Among his other works, the story of death row prisoner Marie Chrstine, and the bold energy of Wild Party are prominent in his oeuvre. The latter, fueled by bathtub gin and cocaine, with Eartha Kitt in the Broadway debut, was truly outré.

For these reasons, audiences may be surprised by his new musical, The Gardens of Anuncia,  now at Lincoln Center Theater at The Mitzi E Newhouse. In this new work, LaChiusa pays homage to his mentor and colleague, Graciela Daniele. 

Eden Espinosa, Kalyn West, Mary Testa, and Andrea Burns.

However, telling  a story of admiration for another can be dangerous territory. In this case especially, as it’s a kind of blended story by two collaborators, about two collaborators. As the story goes, they share their devotion to their art – neither striving for commercial recognition. Perhaps that’s why Daniele continues to direct and choreograph such vivid stage works, and LaChiusa continues to fascinate new audiences.

Still, it doesn’t eliminate the trap, so to speak, of being in the art, versus being in the success. 

To that end, Anuncia is more of a chamber music piece than a full blown Broadway musical, as Daniele herself so famously directed and choreographed. In this small cast – the primary characters are women, including a young Daniele (Kalyn West), and the women who molded her. Eden Espinosa as her mother, Andréa Burns, her aunt, and Mary Testa as Granmama are all fabulous in their roles. 

Priscilla Lopez

In narrating the story, from Daniele’s perspective, Priscilla Lopez demonstrates a character of strength and honest self-awareness.

With a beautiful singing voice, Espinosa also holds the story up; her performance is warm, vibrant, and musically buoyant. Similarly, as Daniele’s concerned Aunt, Burns is fine in song. As is her wont, Mary Testa evokes the Grande Guignal of grandmothers – so fierce is her wisdom.

While Anuncia is essentially a story about strong women, the book feels a bit lame. Centering around Daniele’s love of gardening, watching things grow, and imagining the trees, the plants, and the birds is a beautiful frame. But so much for the flowers, they consume too much time and attention. 

Tally Sessions and Priscilla Lopez.

While clashes with the Peronists disturb her life as a youth in Argentina, the great influencers are the women in who raised her. Almost every song is about them, with them, or from them.

As she reflects on her life and storied career, we see the obstacles Daniele faced, but which never distracted from her ability to carry on with grace. It feels a little too perfect, too pure, and as musicals go – it lacks the intensity of a big conflict. Instead, the play has a cumbersome structure. 

The frame of Daniele’s gardening, is the frame within the frame. On the exterior frame, so to speak, is the real time event. She’s torn to leave her garden to attend the Tony Awards, where she will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award. While she reflects on it, she can barely leave her garden to dress, go into the city, and receive an award. 

Clearly, it’s not the award that motivates the artist, but the art itself. This being the conflict, however, makes it too obvious how happy the ending will be. For that reason, it feels a tad trite – on the level of a Lifetime television movie. 

Andrea Burns, Mary Testa, Priscilla Lopez, and Eden Espinosa.

As messaging, however, it works brilliantly in song. In the “Opening,” the speedy tinkle of piano keys, propels the ladies on their daily chores. LaChiusa’s music and lyrics are so charming on the matter of domestic life – it sends chills through your spine. One mantra, “Mama, Grandma, Tía and me,” spins through the musical.

Quotidian as the material truly is, the songs get repetitive. But the interruptions – mostly dance songs – cha-chas and tangos are invigorating, as is the dancing. 

Other buoyant musical numbers feature The Deer (Tally Sessions)  – a character reigned in apparently from Daniele’s style of “magical realism.”  That’s a cultural reference to her work that the director/choreographer takes issue with here. It irritates her, and makes her feel that people have a need to label. All of it , she opines, just puts constraints on creativity, and imagination.

Handsome as hell, Sessions presents with sturdy comic horn, and steady tap dancing hoof. And Enrique Acevedo is a believable philanderer in a variety of roles, from Grandpapa to That Man.

Priscilla Lopez and Kalyn West as Older and Younger Anuncia.

As designed by Mark Wendland, with movable chairs and simple objects, the staging lends itself  to the chamber music style of the piece. Lighting by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer puts the focus on the storytellers. Still, omnipresent shadows lurk in these tyrannical times, in Perrone’s Argentina.

Toni-Leslie James’ costumes are simple, albeit becoming character statements. In keeping with storytelling – and domesticity itself, the production elements are clean and minimalist.  

It is gracefully directed and choreographed by Graciele Daniele. In it she speaks to the women in her life; and to the role women play in creating life anew every day.

The Gardens of Anuncia ***1/2
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre/Lincoln Center
150 W. 65th Street, NYC
Through December 31, 2023
Photography: Julieta Cervantes