'Gardens of Anuncia' review: The Broadway star and the women who molded her

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'Gardens of Anuncia' review: The Broadway star and the women who molded her
From left: Eden Espinosa, Mary Testa, Priscilla Lopez, Kayln West and Andrea Burns in “The Gardens of Anuncia” at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater in New York, on Oct. 18, 2023. Michael John LaChiusa’s beautifully sung tribute to sisterly admiration, starring Priscilla Lopez, was inspired by the early life of the show’s director, Graciela Daniele. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

by Juan A. Ramírez

NEW YORK, NY.- At the heart of “The Gardens of Anuncia,” Michael John LaChiusa’s sweet reverie of a musical, is a respect and recognition for the renowned Broadway choreographer Graciela Daniele, a longtime friend and collaborator.

The show, which opened Monday at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, debuted in 2021 at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego. It arrives in a Lincoln Center Theater production with its original cast mostly intact, and Daniele back directing and sharing choreography duties with Alex Sanchez. But now the acclaimed stage veteran Priscilla Lopez is the star, and her knowing performance as Anuncia (a present-day version of Daniele) enriches this lovely, slightly repetitive, but beautifully sung tribute to sisterly admiration.

While tending to her garden on the day she’s set to receive a lifetime achievement award, Anuncia thinks back to the women who raised her in Buenos Aires, Argentina, during the Perón regime. She’s ambivalent about the prize (“Who needs an award for living so long?”) and jokes that her decades of work in the theater (Daniele has received 10 Tony Award nominations and, yes, one career-spanning award in 2021) simply dominoed from the first English word she ever learned: “OK.”

A gifted dancer from an early age, she was hired by a major national dance company before moving on to international success.

But she’s passionate when conjuring up her Mami (Eden Espinosa), Tía (Andréa Burns), and Granmama (Mary Testa). In the show we watch this matriarchal triumvirate, which Anuncia credits for her resilience and compassion, interact with her younger self (Kalyn West). Each woman details for Anuncia her particular relationship with men. Granmama is “agreeably separated” from her seafaring husband (Enrique Acevedo), whom she met while working as his housekeeper and still allows to woo her whenever he is in port. Tía, a gal’s gal, entertains lusty advances from the “Moustache Brothers” (Acevedo and Tally Sessions), but also prefers her independence.

It’s Mami who presents this work’s richest complexities. Anuncia cannot understand why her mother, after years of sordid abuse from her husband (Acevedo again), tries to steer her daughter away from hating the man. Nor can she reconcile her mother’s distaste for the government even though she works as a gubernatorial secretary.

The show’s choice to call the Graciela Daniele character “Anuncia” is puzzling, considering the story’s perfect alignment with her biography. But a possible explanation is later drawn from the name’s source — the biblical annunciation — to a lineage of women enduring adversity. LaChiusa mercifully does not overstate contemporary parallels between the paranoia of Juan Perón’s dictatorship and our own uncertain times, rather emphasizing the way women have long relied on one another for protection.

Conversely, his tender music would benefit from a sharper edge. The pleasant score is full of warm pianos and suspended cymbal rolls, but its lyrics are mired with platitudes; Tía advises her to “listen to the music” of life, Grandpa says to “gather up the world,” and so on. A more whimsical variation of this takes place in the older Anuncia’s garden where, across flashes of magical realism, a talking deer (Sessions) advises her to “dance while you can.”

These episodes emerge gracefully from the beaded, flowering curtain at the back of Mark Wendland’s bare stage, and the simple movement-based choreography is emotively lit by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer. As its actresses weave through that hanging garden, they look ravishing in Toni-Leslie James’ svelte period dresses — and so does this small-scale musical, whose tribute to women’s sacrifices and encouragement is put in their own finest light.

‘The Gardens of Anuncia’

Through Dec. 31 at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, Manhattan; lct.org. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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