'The Gardens of Anuncia' review — a new musical on the cusp of blooming

Read our review of The Gardens of Anuncia off Broadway, the latest collaboration between Graciela Daniele and Michael John LaChiusa, at Lincoln Center Theater.

Allison Considine
Allison Considine

The Gardens of Anuncia is both a memory musical and a gift of friendship. Composer and lyricist John Michael LaChiusa sets the life story of his longtime collaborator, the famed director-choreographer Graciela Daniele, to a tango-infused score.

Daniele, a 10-time Tony Award nominee and recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award, is best known for her directing and choreography work on Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life, Annie Get Your Gun, Marie Christine, Once on This Island, The Pirates of Penzance, Dangerous Game, and Ragtime.

LaChiusa’s musical, directed and choreographed by Daniele, does not chronicle her early days training at the Teatro Colón in Argentina or follow her star turn on the Great White Way. Rather, the musical is a poetic homage to the women who raised her: Tía, Mami, and Granmama.

The story starts with Older Anuncia, based on Daniele, nurturing her garden and delaying the task of burying her aunt’s ashes. She’s also procrastinating getting ready for an awards ceremony, where she’ll be honored with a Lifetime Achievement distinction. Instead, Anuncia reflects on her family and childhood in Argentina, as flashbacks play out around herein the garden.

Priscilla Lopez and Kalyn West portray Older Anuncia and Younger Anuncia, respectively. They beautifully mirror each other. Lopez, best known for originating the role of Diana Morales in A Chorus Line, brings a quiet reflection to the older character, and West expertly portrays a range of ages, from an imaginative child to a confident young woman.

The trio of women who raise Anuncia amid the backdrop of the Perón regime are the real garden gems. The compassionate Tía (Andréa Burns) inspires Anuncia’s love of music. In the touching song “Listen to the Music,” she teaches Younger Anuncia to explore her imagination.

It’s Mami (Eden Espinosa) who gives Anuncia the gift of dance after enrolling her in ballet classes to strengthen her flat feet. In a standout number called “MalaGueña,” Espinosa deftly dances the tango. As Granmama, Mary Testa brings her powerhouse voice and comic timing to the matriarch, giving Anuncia a flair for the dramatic.

The design adds to the garden’s allure. The lighting, by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, brings the stage to life with swaths of pink and yellow hues — stand-ins for the blooming peonies and forsythias. In the tango number, purple and green spotlights illuminate the stage and reveal the live band perched above.

While the vignettes of Anuncia’s childhood are heartfelt, the framing of Tía’s burial and Anuncia’s awards ceremony lacks impact and lags. There’s a touch of magical realism, particularly in the scenes featuring a deer, played with alacrity by Tally Sessions. Anuncia and the deer dance the bolero among the blooms, philosophize about life, and almost kiss. It’s strange.

The musical is definitively not a biomusical, but the show is wanting in more dance. I’d love to see Younger Anuncia perform full-blown dance sequence and showcase the talents her family helped nurture.

Daniele directs the musical with the loving care of a gardener tending their life’s work. It’s a full-circle moment — the show is Daniele’s eighth project with Lincoln Center Theater. In many ways, The Gardens of Anuncia presents the hallmarks of a successful garden: It is visually appealing and full of life.

The Gardens of Anuncia is at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center through December 31. Get The Gardens of Anuncia tickets on New York Theatre Guide.

Photo credit: Andréa Burns, Mary Testa, Priscilla Lopez, and Eden Espinosa in The Gardens of Anuncia. (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)

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