Wednesday, November 22, 2023

REVIEW: The Gardens of Anuncia

Review of the Saturday, November 4, 2023 evening preview performance at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. Starring Enrique Acevedo, Andrea Burns, Eden Espinosa, Priscilla Lopez, Tally Sessions, Mary Testa and Kalyn West. Book, music and lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa. Orchestrations by Michael Starobin. Scenic design by Mark Wendland. Costume design by Toni-Leslie James. Lighting design by Jules Fischer and Peggy Eisenhauer, recreated by David Lander. Sound design by Drew Levy. Co-choreographer Alex Sanchez. Direction and choreography by Graciela Daniele. 90 minutes, no intermission. Production runs through December 31, 2023.

Grade: A

This is a bio-musical unlike any you've ever seen before. While The Gardens of Anuncia does tell of the life of celebrated choreographer Graciela Daniele, it is only vaguely biographical. Here, we are presented with Anuncia, who narrates a trip back to Peron-era Argentina where she was a young, dream-filled girl being raised by three strong women. Actually, this charming, mystical musical is really a tribute to those women, and not a tribute to the subject of the show. Anuncia is, most of the time, almost incidental. Sure, she jokes about a decades-long career as a dancer and Broadway choreographer, dreading having to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award. But mostly, she muses - through the eyes of her younger self - about the events that shaped her into the woman she became. It is a beautiful, heartfelt remembrance of the generations who raised her, and the closing of the biggest chapter in her life.

Michael John LaChiusa
, who provides the book, lyrics and music, has had a long association with Ms. Daniele, and his affection for her permeates the entire show. That's not to say he paints her in an exclusively rosy light - she is as stubborn as she is open, as willful as she is collaborative. Her regrets are as prominent as her accomplishments. The book allows for liberties in the storytelling, with moments displayed and then slightly recounted - she admits that parts of her story are softened and glossed over, Memories are strange things, she says. And there are moments of supernatural realism to make a broader point in a fanciful way: she has conversations with a young buck (literally), for example. (And she admits that this probably won't work for her American audiences. The opposite is true, of course. We buy it hook, line and sinker.) LaChiusa's tango and Latin-infused score is lovely - his most completely accessible to date - with not a clinker in the bunch. That's not to say it isn't rich. I hope there will be a cast recording; I hope to dig deeper into his themes and poetic lyrics. Michael Starobin's orchestrations are on point and also worthy of deeper exploration.

The almost mystical, mythological feel of this memory play are brought to lovely fruition by the entire design team. Mark Wendland's set made up of upside down flowers arranged on delicate wires that reveal themselves to be a labyrinth of infinite paths, and sumptuous, dreamy lighting by Jules Fischer and Peggy Eisenhauer (recreated by David Lander) serve the piece perfectly, allowing an effortless back and forth between past and present, dream and reality. Toni-Leslie James' costumes do the same.

The Mitzi E. Newhouse is an ideal venue for this piece - intimate and dark, where you can feel like the show is being performed only for you. Daniele and co-choreographer Alex Sanchez have gone to great lengths to present the work in such a way that no one in this thrust stage setting is left out of any scene. I don't think there's really a bad seat to be had, given this staging. Given that this musical is about a dancer-choreographer, there aren't many dance numbers per se, but what there is, is striking, particularly a tight, sensual and somewhat violent tango. That said, there is dancing and dreamy movement almost non-stop, as if being weaved in and out of the clouds of memory, and the entire cast is up to the task.

Leading the company of seven as Older Anuncia is an aging dancer herself, Tony-winner Priscilla Lopez, who is as graceful and lithe as ever. Her face, full of wisdom reveals a graceful aging, each line and wrinkle earned by the tough life of a Broadway star - how wonderfully appropriate. Her gentle touch, coupled with a magnetic presence and pointed moments of flare are perfection as she tells us this story. Her counterpart, Younger Auncia, is played with a fierce and fiery commitment by Kayln West. It is clear that Ms. West has studied Ms. Lopez's every movement and expression, so exacting is her approach to the character - there are times when the likeness is uncanny. But her performance is much more and absolutely riveting. She does more acting with her big, beautiful eyes and her set jaw than I may have ever seen. I look forward to seeing her again and soon.

The two male actors in the company each play multiple roles, and are great in all of them. Enrique Acevedo is particularly outstanding in his role as Granpapa, a man big on warmth, and a mysterious air. Tally Sessions, one of my favorite actors, exudes grace and machismo as the deer (yes, he plays a deer - actually 2 of them). He is sexy and beguiling both to Anuncia and the audience, and his powerful voice with Ms. Lopez's in both "Dance While You Can" iterations is a highlight in an evening full of them.

For me, though, the best part is the three women central to Anuncia's upbringing: Mary Testa as Granmama, Eden Espinosa as Mami, and Andrea Burns as Tia. Each of these amazing actresses are so completely enveloped in their characters that they seem to disappear. Ms. Testa offers up her special brand of worldly wisdom and brash delivery, with no shortage of warmth, either. Ms. Espinosa is such a presence here that it is difficult to take your eyes off of her. She is strong but flawed, and I found myself both rooting for her and a bit put off at the same time - I mean that as an entirely positive assessment. And Ms. Burns, who has become one of my favorite actresses of all, is so full of passion, warmth and wisdom, it is no wonder Anuncia is drawn to her as she is. Each has incredible moments to shine individually, but it is when they are together that the magic - and the emotion - really happens. As each drifts out of Anuncia's life, we feel an empathetic wave of grief.

As with most of LaChiusa's works, this isn't a show one goes to to be dazzled and bowled over by flash and excess. You have to come into it open to the possibilities and be willing to participate in active attention. It is a show that, for me at least, only grew better in my heart and mind the further I'm away from it. A complex work about a complex woman, told in idioms central to her celebrated life: her culture and musical theater inextricably woven together.

📸: J. Cervantes

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