By: Samuel L. Leiter
December 1, 2023: Two new Off-Broadway musicals inspired by the pre-fame years of famous artists are presently attracting attention. One, reviewed here recently, is Hell’s Kitchen, a jukebox musical set during Alicia Keys’s teenage years in mid-Manhattan in the 1990s; the other, at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre, is The Garden of Anuncia, a dramatically slight, enchantingly sung chamber musical about the youth of esteemed director-choreographer Graciella Daniele in her native Buenos Aires, Argentina, in the 1940s and 1950s, during the Juan and Eva Perón years.
The former, which is perhaps 80% fictional, changes Alicia’s name to Ali, and is focused on her relationship to her single, working mother, a concept also at the heart of The Gardens of Anuncia. Its thin plot exists mainly to showcase Keys’s pop music catalogue. The Gardens also has biographical inventions—although far less so than Hell’s Kitchen. One is the change of Daniele’s name to Anuncia, a choice made to allow for a jokey reference to the Annunciation but also—as the show’s creator, John Michael LaChiusa has said—to highlight the thematic idea that just as the biblical Mary accepted the gift of Jesus, anyone given an artistic gift should be ready to accept the responsibilities accepting such a gift entails.
For another example, Anuncia’s life in Argentina ceases when she leaves Buenos Aires, and her beloved family, for Paris after being offered dance work there; in reality, according to an old interview reprinted in the Lincoln Center Review,she didn’t go to Paris until after she’d already worked in Brazil, Colombia, and Batista’s Cuba. By that time, she’d been married and broken up with her husband. The dramaturgic manipulation here is about as egregious as having Ali in Hell’s Kitchen begin learning piano at 17 from a total stranger, when the real Alicia had been practicing six hours a day from the age of seven.
These alterations are in keeping with the insistence of the richly talented Michael John LaChiusa, who wrote the book, lyrics, and music, that The Gardens of Anuncia is “not a biomusical; it’s more a fantasia on a life, a riff on a memory play,” which could arguably apply to Hell’s Kitchen as well.
In each the leading figure narrates the story. Ali, in Hell’s Kitchen, serves as both the narrator, looking back, and the 17-year-old girl she once was, shifting her tone to differentiate one from the other. The Gardens of Anuncia is structured so that the elderly Anuncia, played sensitively by the silver-haired Priscilla Lopez (the original Morales in A Chorus Line), trim and spiffy in a casual white top over white slacks, can recall her youth. She often interacts with her younger self, a shallowly conceived role benefiting from being performed by the delightful Kalyn West.
The framing premise is that, as the senior Anuncia prepares—reluctantly—to go into the city to receive a lifetime achievement award, she putters about in her suburban garden, speaking to her (invisible) plants and even to visiting deer. The garden motif, to which the script keeps returning, alludes to Anuncia/Daniele’s fondness for gardening, symbolizing, perhaps, the art of cultivating plants much as she herself was cultivated by her family and artistic teachers, and as she herself cultivates terpsichorean artistry in others.
LaChiusa has created an homage to Daniele, his close friend and frequent collaborator on shows like Hello Again, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, and Bernarda Alba. In The Gardens, his focus is not so much on laying out the facts of Anuncia’s early development, or even presenting a strong dramatic arc, but on paying tribute—he calls it “an act of gratitude”—to the three women who helped shape her character while looking after her during the dictatorial Perón regime.
These are Mami (a formidable Eden Espinosa), Anuncia’s forthright, strong-willed mother; her warmly wise Aunt Tía (Andréa Burns, impressive); and her bawdy Granmama (the broadly effusive Mary Testa, perhaps a bit more effusive than necessary). Many of the show’s significant memories surround one or the other of these women, perhaps most memorable being the time Mami, who worked at the governor’s office, is detained by the Perón police for vaguely specified reasons.
Men—these women are anything but wallflowers—appear as well. Anuncia’s lousy father (Enrique Acevedo, very good in four small roles), called “That Man,” shows up briefly. Anuncia shares a particularly sordid memory of him. Most notable is Grandpa (Acevedo again), Granmama’s world-roaming merchant marine husband, from whom she’s “agreeably separated,” who boasts of a mistress (not a whore!) in every port. And with a self-conscious nod to magic realism, two fully antlered, musically adept deer (both played very well by Tally Sessions), have lightly comedic scenes with the elder Anuncia.
LaChiusa’s score of over a dozen songs, exceptionally well sung by the cast of seven, leans more toward the artsy side of the musical theatre spectrum; the sometimes mundane words—Sondheim can rest in peace and Lloyd Webber need not cry for himself—are more densely narrative, and the melodies more unconventional than the hits in the Keys songbook. Unlike the pop superstar’s songs, LaChiusa’s, more concerned with illuminating an event than rousing you to shake your booty, are unlikely to remain ensconced in many listeners’ ears without a strong effort to keep them there.
The central dilemma, though, is that, despite the 84-year-old Daniele’s renown being rooted in her choreographic genius, dance—disappointingly—is present only peripherally. The disappointment is doubled when you notice that Daniele has a co-choreographer, Alex Sanchez. Dance has always been Daniele’s raison d’être, yet—aside from her smooth management of stage movement set to consistent musical underscoring—all she provides are bits and piece of ballet, bolero, and even Argentina’s major dance export, tango.
When, finally, it seems we’re about to witness a full-scale dance routine, during “Malaguena,” a lusty tango sung by Mami, we lean forward in anxious anticipation of a Daniele masterpiece, one to rival those that keep popping up on TikTok. But what follows after a shadowy man in a black fedora (Acevedo) begins to dance with Mami is little more than a few routine moves before the number’s nipped in the bud.
The Gardens of Anuncia, which runs 90 intermissionless minutes, originated at San Diego’s Old Globe. Its essentially bare but nonetheless elegant look, the work of Mark Wendland, is backed by rows of hanging glass beads that morph midway up into what resemble plant stalks. The design depends greatly on the versatile lighting of Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer (recreated by David Lander), and the tastefully understated but truthful-looking period costumes of Toni-Leslie James. The show is crisp and rarely dull; however, if it ever moves on from here one hopes it will offer a better representation of why we care so much about Graciela Daniele’s artistry to begin with.
The Gardens of Anuncia
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre/Lincoln Center
150 W. 65th Street, NYC
Through December 31, 2023
Photography: Julieta Cervantes