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The Gardens of Anuncia

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - November 20, 2023

The Cast
Photo by Julieta Cervantes
Addressing the audience, the title character in Michael John LaChiusa's charming if evanescent musical The Gardens of Anuncia, describes the setting as one in which "flowers float, tomatoes sing, and deer talk." We might call it "magic realism," but for the narrator of her own story and the self-confessed manipulator of her own memories, it is "just reality."

The delightful heart of this 90-minute jewel of a show, opening tonight at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, is its ensemble of amazing women who, along with a couple of men and those talking deer (no floating flowers or singing tomatoes, alas), drift in and out of view as they enter and leave the thoughts of Anuncia, played as her older self by Priscilla Lopez, an absolute charmer in her own right. When we first meet her, she is spending time in her garden prior to dressing for a formal ceremony in which she will receive a lifetime achievement award. It's an event she really would rather skip in order to be alone with her flowers and her thoughts; after all, she says, "who needs an award for living so long?"

The Gardens of Anuncia is based more-or-less on a slice of the biography of dancer/choreographer Graciela Daniele, who directs and co-choreographs (with Alex Sanchez) this production. It is a mutual exchange of gifts between Daniele and LaChiusa, for whom this is their fifth collaboration at Lincoln Center. But other than that lifetime achievement award, which Daniele actually did receive at the 2020 Tonys, little is mentioned of her or her surrogate's distinguished career.

Instead, we are whisked back in time to Anuncia's childhood in 1940s-'50s Argentina, where she grew up in a household of loving women who are trying to make a safe and quiet life for themselves under the crushing regime of Juan and Eva Perón. In her reverie, Anuncia is now her young self (appealingly played by Kalyn West), nurtured under the watchful eye of her fiercely protective Mami (Eden Espinosa), her doting Tia (Andréa Burns), and her opinionated, acerbic, and quite funny Granmama (Mary Testa). They are joined from time to time by Granpapa (Enrique Acevedo), a seaman to whom Granmama has been married for decades, though they have found it best to live apart because, as she tells Anuncia, "your grandfather values life." Then there is "That Man" (also played by Acevedo), Anuncia's father-in-name-only, the bitter, possibly traumatic memory of whom Older Anuncia has been trying unsuccessfully to quash.

There is little by way of plot, just snippets of (mostly) happy memories of Anuncia's interactions with the other family members. The brutal militaristic climate of Argentina makes only one significant appearance when, shortly after an adolescent burst of rage that Younger Anuncia aims at her mother, Mami is arrested for no apparent reason and becomes, for a time, one of that country's "disappeared." Still and all, this remains a wonderfully tight-knit family in whose arms Anuncia is embraced until she is sent off to Europe to fulfill her destiny as a dancer.

Regrets and discord, like unwanted weeds, are few in this tale. Older Anuncia, the last one who is still alive, makes it clear that she is quite content to erase from her mind as much unpleasantness as she possibly can and to dwell on the pleasures of her memories and, of course, the pleasures of her garden, where she is visited on two occasions by, yes, talking deer (a delightfully quirky Tally Sessions) who share their own philosophies about life.

Michael John LaChiusa, who is responsible for book, music, and lyrics, has composed some dozen or so songs, including character-driven solos for Espinosa and Burns to sing and for Testa to belt. The score is filled with tangos, merengue, mambo, and other music of Argentina, along with occasional bits of Caribbean calypso (the opening number sounds rather like "Under the Sea" from The Little Mermaid). The melodies are generally simple, straightforward, and heartfelt, in keeping with the overall tone of the evening. The same can be said of Toni-Leslie James' period costumes and Mark Wendland's set design, which consists of a couple of benches and long rows of hanging fiber optic "vines" through which the "memory" characters appear and disappear, while Older Anuncia remains downstage.

The Gardens of Anuncia is a delicate work that is dependent on its perfect cast and the sure eye of its director to keep things gently flowing. There is no room for rough spots or prima donnas anywhere along the way. Fortunately for this production, it's all hands on deck, so that the whole work comes off as if it were a piece of intricately tatted lace. Or, perhaps, a lovingly nurtured garden.

The Gardens of Anuncia
Through December 31, 2023
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center, 150 W 65th St, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: