Michael John LaChiusa’s The Gardens of Anuncia is the latest coming-of-age musical about a major female artistic figure, in this case based on the childhood and stories of dancer/choreographer Graciela Daniele who also directed and co-choreographed. A sweet lovely chamber show, it is also tepid and tame and has little impact. Part of the problem is that it is rather vague in its details, telling us less than we need to know. Also many of LaChiusa’s song lyrics (written to his beautiful but low key music) are banal and platitudinous, offering clichés that are not very fresh or original.
The show is led by a high powered cast including Tony Award winner Priscilla Lopez, Drama Desk winners Andréa Burns and Mary Testa, and rising star Eden Espinosa who will star as artist Tamara de Lempicka on Broadway this spring. Unfortunately, Lopez (dividing the role of Anuncia based on Daniele) with Kalyn West as her younger counterpart is mainly used as a narrator who doesn’t really enter the action. While program notes reveal that the real Daniele “talks with her plants, she talks with the deer, she talks with the chipmunks in her garden,” the metaphor of the garden is never made clear in the show.
The Gardens of Anuncia is not about Daniele’s career in the theater for which she is famous, but the three indomitable women who brought her up in 1940’s Buenos Aires: her single parent mother (Mami), her mother’s unmarried sister (Tía) and her divorced grandmother (Granmama.) The show is framed by the older Anuncia having put off burying the ashes of her recently deceased aunt and needing to leave her country home for a New York theater’s ceremony to receive a lifetime achievement award she is ambivalent about getting.
LaChiusa’s musical is mostly written around the younger Anunica’s life in 1940’s Argentina during the repressive Juan and Eva Perón regime although we don’t hear much about it until Mami is arrested near the end of the show for subversive activities. (We never find out if she was guilty or not.) Mainly Anuncia finds out the story of her family by asking questions: her mother’s abusive marriage to her absent father, her grandmother’s marriage to the sea captain who was the brother of the family she worked for as a maid, her aunt’s love life. Unfortunately, we are not told enough and the younger Anuncia remains very much an enigma. We know she wants to dance, but we are never told about her studies or how she acquired a position at El Teatro Colon Ballet School. When she leaves at the end of the show for France, we know nothing of the job awaiting her there. None of the musicals that the adult Daniele choreographed are ever referred to.
The cast is as good as their material. Espinosa is impressive as Mami, a strong woman who has made compromises for her family. Her best moment is the tango called “Malagueña” with Enrique Acevedo as That Man, possibly her ex-husband. (This is the only extended dancing in the entire show, odd for a musical with two choreographers, one the legendary Graciela Daniele.) As the wry, witty aunt Tía, Burns is memorable but her talents are mostly wasted as she isn’t given much to do. Testa’s Granmama is rather one dimensional as a highly emotional woman with very set opinions and a flair for the dramatic.
Both Lopez and West are simply questioners and listeners to the stories of others, and have very little personality as such. The two men in the show demonstrate their range as they are given several characters each. Acevedo plays the compassionate Granpapa, That Man (the silent dance partner who morphs into Anuncia’s father), a sinister Priest, and is romantic and suave as one of the two Moustache Brothers, two suitors who dance with Tia in the number “Smile for Me, Lucia.” Tally Sessions is amusing as a talking Deer (whose role seems entirely gratuitous) and the other seductive and amorous Moustache Brother.
Although LaChiusa has worked with Daniele several times over the last 30 years (his musicals Hello, Again, Marie Christine, Chronicles of a Death Foretold, and Bernarda Alba, all produced by Lincoln Center Theater in various venues), this collaboration does not seem to have inspired his best work. The pleasant musical score is only partially composed with Latin melodies; the rest have their roots in Broadway. The songs often have prosaic titles like “Listen to the Music,” “Waiting/Dreaming,” and “Dance While You Can” which would be no problem if the lyrics were inspired. However, many of the lyrics are banal and insipid: “Right or wrong, what I may do, I do for you,” “Listen to the music,/ Try to see the colors,/ Turn them into pictures,” “Live while you can, Love while you can, Dance while you can,” “Pick me, Lucia, What you want is what I’ve got,” “Go and find the world,/ And you will find the world is you.” The older Anuncia speaks of Magic Realism but except for the talking deer, there is no evidence of it.
The most unusual aspect of the show are the design elements: Mark Wendland’s unit set lit by Jules Fisher (Daniele’s own husband) and Peggy Eisenhauer. The small stage of the Mitzi Newhouse is covered across its proscenium by a beaded curtain with leaves or flowers all facing down. The lights play upon this curtain alternately in blue, green, purple. Sometimes the effects are magical, other times they are rather distracting. David Lander is credited with “lighting design recreation” which is not explained but might refer to the original Old Globe, San Diego production in 2021.
Michael John LaChiusa’s The Gardens of Anuncia is an interesting attempt to tell choreographer Graciela Daniele’s adolescent story. Unfortunately, as of now the show does not make the case that her coming of age was that eventful or compelling. What we might like to know is about her famed career, but that sort of presentation has been done in Fosse, Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, and Prince of Broadway, the Harold Prince story. The Gardens of Anuncia is pleasant enough but leaves one hungry for more. The magical realism elements might be more fleshed out and some of the unanswered questions that are coyly handled might be revealed.
The Gardens of Anuncia (through December 31, 2023)
Lincoln Center Theater
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, 150 W. 65th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-501-3100 or visit http://www.lct.org
Running time: 95 minutes without an intermission