THE GARDENS OF ANUNCIA, A True Pleasure — Review
Anuncia will tell us her story, if we insist. A story of growing up in Argentina amidst the rise and fall of Juan Perón’s government. Of being raised by three ferocious women, her mami, grandmama and tía. And of maturing without any help from her father, or “That Man,” who left when Anuncia was six.
Or, she could just tend to her garden. She might prefer that. Anuncia is not one to dwell greatly on the past.
“A therapist once told me that if I could reconcile my feelings about “That Man,” I’d have a more productive life,” she later recalls, then adds wryly: “That was just after I’d opened my twelfth Broadway show.”
The Gardens of Anuncia finds its oddness and also its considerable charm in this premise: a coming-of-age recalled by a narrator who has little pressing need to revisit her upbringing, and who instead floats dreamily through a collage of memories as she calmly tends to her tomatoes.
One imagines director and co-choreographer Graciela Daniele rolling her eyes at composer Michael John LaChiusa when he first suggested a musical based on her life. This despite Daniele’s incredible resume: original Broadway cast member of Chicago, assistant to Michael Bennett on Follies, choreographer on the world premiere of Ragtime and director of Once on this Island, among countless other theatrical credits.
Not that any of those shows are covered in Gardens – or even mentioned. Nor is our protagonist called Graciela. Clearly, Daniele had no interest in a straightforward bio-musical, particularly not one focused on showbusiness.
Instead, LaChiusa’s modest book opens with an older Anuncia confessing a dread to her peonies at receiving a lifetime achievement award that evening. (Daniele received a Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2022.) “Anuncia…” come the whispers from her past, luring her into a musical. “Anuncia…” Sighing, she acquiesces to recounting her youth — for the anemones. They are new to the garden, after all.
As our narrator, Priscilla Lopez is key to the show’s success. She is wonderfully understated and droll, setting the tone for a sparing retelling of an extraordinary life.
Lopez’s self-effacing humor helps in selling the show’s two strangest and best numbers: a pair of visits from two deer (both Tally Sessions), the first soulful and the second a cynic. Lopez regards the latter with an amusing disdain and, even more memorably, seems positively horny for his sage brother, who sees beauty everywhere he looks. If the two deer are intended to reflect art vs. commerce (my own reading), then Daniele makes it exceedingly clear where she stands.
Most of LaChiusa’s compositions are less surreal. There is a buoyant opener introducing the family unit, and rich solos for each female elder to recount their own stories. All are just exquisite. A tango-infused number for Anuncia’s mother is particularly rousing, and is enchantingly performed by Eden Espinosa.
Espinosa has less success in navigating her character’s darker turns — though this is partly a problem in the writing. Mami’s abuse at the hands of Anuncia’s father, shown in musical flashback, is recounted in overly broad terms. Later she is imprisoned by Perón’s government, but while we are told this experience changes her dramatically, that shift is never really felt in Espinosa’s performance.
And as Granmama, the typically unimpeachable Mary Testa overdoes it just a little bit, playing as though she were in the 1,114 seat Vivian Beaumont rather than Lincoln Center’s more intimate Mitzi E. Newhouse space.
But the greatest focus is ultimately placed on Anuncia’s tía (aunt), whose death we eventually learn has set these recollections in motion. An absolutely resplendent Andréa Burns gives full and complicated life to tía, and ultimately lends the show its heart.
Daniele has crafted a simple, gorgeous production, helped by an elegant garden trellis-like backdrop, designed by Mark Wendland, which seems to shift and reshape under Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer’s ethereal lighting as we progress through Anuncia’s memories.
Ultimately, The Gardens of Anuncia is less a straightforward story of Daniele’s life than a chance to spend a little time in this artist’s often strange, mostly wondrous mindscape. The pleasure is ours.
The Gardens of Anuncia is now in performance at Lincoln Center Theater. For tickets and more information, visit here.