Graciela Daniele, a Broadway luminary for six decades, directs this lovely and peculiar musical written by her good friend Michael John LaChiusa, who uses Daniele’s life as the inspiration for a story about the family of strong women who nurtured her. “The Gardens of Anuncia” features a cast of golden-voiced actresses, but also a stag stand-up – by which I mean a deer (a hoofed mammal) who cracks jokes.
Priscilla Lopez portrays Daniele’s stand-in Anuncia in the present day, puttering in the garden of her country house, avoiding the trip to New York City for the ceremony around her Lifetime Achievement Award, talking to her plants, having conversations with that deer (played with antlers by Tally Sessions), and hearing the voices of the three women who raised her. They come to life before her — Eden Espinosa as Anuncia’s mother Mami, Andréa Burns as her aunt Tia, Mary Testa as her grandmother Granmama, mothering and smothering the young Anuncia (Kalyn West) in the Argentina of the 1940s and 1950’s. Each of the women has had, at best, complicated relationships with the men in their lives (most portrayed by Enrique Acevedo.) Mami’s husband – Anuncia’s father – abandoned the family when Anuncia was six, after years of abuse.
That complicated relationship extends to what Mami pointedly calls “the Fatherland not the “Motherland” – the government of Juan and Eva Perón. They see it as an oppressive dictatorship — “That woman, Eva; she’s the real danger. The lies she tells,” Grandmama says – but, to avoid working in the fish market, Mami has taken a job in the government – a decision that leads to her imprisonment.
It’s more than just fanciful to view “The Gardens of Anuncia” as the opposite of the Andrew Lloyd Musical, “Evita,” and not just because it offers a different perspective on the Perón regime. It’s a deliberately modest musical in many ways. The scenic design is simple, the set vaguely suggesting rather than re-creating a country garden and an Argentine dwelling. There is little plot. There isn’t even much dancing, which is surprising, since Daniele, who is listed as the co-choreographer along with Alex Sanchez, made her name as a dancer; it enabled her escape at a young age from a politically precarious Argentina, and eventual acclaim as a choreographer, leading to a Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2020. LaChiusa says his mention of a lifetime achievement award is a coincidence; he wrote the musical before her Tony was even announced. It’s actually one of the few references to Anuncia/Daniele’s career at all, and the character dismisses it (“who needs an award for living so long?”) This is no Evita singing her own praises.
One might suspect this modesty is not just the character’s, but Daniele’s; she surely had some say in the development of this piece. It’s too bad. Unlike “Hell’s Kitchen,” which similarly depicts the lightly fictionalized childhood experiences of a major artistic talent, fewer people know Daniele or her work, and won’t be able to learn any lessons about the origins of artistic talent and temperament.
I also can’t claim that any of the 14 songs in “The Gardens of Anuncia” are an earworm like, say, “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.” But the score is lively and Latin-tinged, and sung beautifully.
The contrast with “Evita” does not demonstrate to me how “The Gardens of Anuncia” falls short, but how a musical can please even when it’s quietly defiantly weird, as this one more or less admits to:
Older Anuncia flirts with the deer; they sing a duet, and are on the verge of kissing when the deer abruptly skips out, saying “I have a dental appointmen.t.”
“Weird,” Anuncia remarks
Later, his brother appears, the jokey one, whom Anuncia rejects as not her type.
“Weird,” the deer remarks
Magic realism, the character calls it.
The Gardens of Anuncia
Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Written by Michael John LaChiusa
Directed and co-choreographed by Graciela Daniele
Co-choreographed by Alex Sanchez, orchestrations by Michael Starobin, music direction by Deborah Abramson
Sets by Mark Wendland, costumes by Toni-Leslie James, lighting by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, recreated by David Lander, and sound by Drew Levy.
Cast: Enrique Acevedo as Granpapa and three other male characters, Andréa Burns as Tia, Eden Espinosa as Mami, Priscilla Lopez as Older Anuncia, Tally Sessions as the deer, his brother and human male character, Mary Testa as Granmama, and Kalyn West as Younger Anuncia.
Photos by Julieta Cervantes