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The Gardens of Anuncia Is a Musical That Thinks Small

Two big musicals, never referenced directly, hang from the vines over The Gardens of Anuncia, which operates below them at an intentionally smaller scale. The first, considering the show is based on its director and co-choreographer Graciela Daniele’s childhood in Perónist Argentina, is obviously Evita — the arm-spread hagiography. Fascists excel at theater, says Priscilla Lopez, who narrates the show as a Daniele stand-in named Anuncia, as she recalls watching a state funeral; this is a line that ricochets off the Peróns to hit Andrew Lloyd Webber too. Anuncia avoids that kind of bombast, telling the story of life in a dictatorship through Daniele’s experiences with immediate family. It roams among various recollections, never grabbing you by the shoulders for a dramatic crescendo. That ranginess got me thinking about Candide, specifically its end-of-show admonishment to “Make Our Garden Grow.” Taking Voltaire’s advice, Anuncia retreats to what’s manageable. It’s slight but purposefully so.

In its self-deprecation, Anuncia cultivates plenty of delicate gestures but holds back from digging deeper. Michael John LaChiusa, the prolific and wide-ranging composer of many a theater nerd’s favorite musicals (argue among yourselves about whether you prefer his Wild Party), approached Daniele, with whom he’d worked on Hello Again and Marie Christine, about dramatizing the story of her life. She apparently needed convincing and insisted that the focus stay on the significant figures in her childhood: her mother (here played by Eden Espinosa), aunt (Andréa Burns), and grandmother (Mary Testa). So you have the composer and book writer in awe of the subject’s talent and life story with the subject (who also happens to be directing) preferring to nudge the spotlight over to other people. That dynamic works itself into Gardens of Anuncia’s framing: Daniele’s avatar is about to head into New York from the suburbs to receive a lifetime-achievement award (in 2021, Daniele did receive an honorary Tony), but as she hates having to celebrate herself, she’d rather stay in her garden, talk to her plants, and think about the past.

The show, accordingly, splits into a series of anecdotes about that trio of women, keeping Anuncia herself at a remove. As a writer, LaChiusa’s like a high-end old-money jeweler — precise, never gaudy, setting each song to catch the light just right — and Lincoln Center Theater has hired a top-flight cast. Espinosa, soon to be on Broadway in Lempicka, struts her way through a tango as she describes Anuncia’s mother’s restless nights on the dance floor. Andréa Burns (crucial in both Dear World and The Light in the Piazza at Encores! this spring) has one of the most openhearted faces onstage and can do plaintively naïve like nobody else. Then, in news to no one, of course Mary Testa kills it. She brings along her electric alto to LaChiusa’s score and knife-blade sarcasm to Grandmama’s many one-liners. Testa’s description of her character’s secret courtship with Anuncia’s grandfather, which involves hiding onions in her hair, has all the texture of the best sort of family anecdote: just strange enough to be real, passed on to us with the polish of decades of recollection. Grandmama’s songs had better live on as cabaret pieces for any number of character actresses.

Through those scattered songs and recollections, LaChiusa and Daniele render the texture of life under a dictatorship on a visceral level in a way that undercuts the drama of press conferences and political theater. Anuncia’s mother has a strong distrust of the Peróns, but her job working for a government official and the general fear of repression limit her options. All three of the older women live independently from men — Anuncia’s father, referred to as That Man, is pointedly absent — but sometimes must rely on them for money or protection. Life is ordinary and manageable, sometimes even idyllic, until terror thrusts in. The lack of sentimentality keeps you on your toes. At any moment, the vines that make up Mark Wendland’s suddenly look a lot like prison bars.

This wealth of material, however, orbits around a figure that The Gardens of Anuncia — and indeed, the Anuncia narrating the show — doesn’t fully illuminate. Both just aren’t sure what to say about the younger Anuncia, played by Kalyn West. She dances and sings well but doesn’t have much to play off of in LaChiusa’s book (which was surely heavily informed by Daniele). She’s sometimes written as a brat, sometimes too childishly angelic, too often just there to ask questions and prompt someone else to speak. Dancing comes easy to the character, a discovery made when her mother decides to enlist her in ballet classes to cure her flat feet, but self-reflection does not. Daniele might want to keep the attention off herself, but structurally, I kept wanting more from her avatar: a solo that threads together what she’s learned from her family members, or at least a clearer sense of her relationship to her own talent, which the show interestingly frames as an obligation.

As the political outlook for Argentina worsens, the other women insist to Anuncia that she must go abroad to pursue her career (the real Daniele left for Paris after studying at Buenos Aires’s Teatro Colón), and LaChiusa hits on the notion that, when you have gifts like hers, you have to share them with the world. I wanted more of how that feels. There’s currently a booming business in being a creative genius telling the story of your own making, as seen with Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmansor the clanging, commercial Alicia Keys-dungsruman Hell’s Kitchenplaying 60 blocks downtown. What often gets lost in that kind of story (though The Fabelmans pulled it off) is how the art-making impulse doubles as a curse. It makes you see all your relationships through your best means of processing them — as a movie, or a song, as a dance — for better and worse. When Anuncia shrugs off her talent and later career as uninteresting, Daniele and LaChiusa let the piece that would complete the jigsaw puzzle slip off the table. These stories are good anecdotes in their own right, but they matter because they informed the person she became and, presumably, the art she made.

Instead, we stay with the garden, a work of art in its own right, but with a small crop, metaphorically and literally. In the show’s present tense, rather than getting into showbiz history, LaChiusa writes two encounters between Anuncia and two passing deer brothers, both played by Tally Sessions in goofy antler headgear. They’re strange and funny bits of magical realism, justified by having Anuncia point out that, as a woman from South America, she’s working in her native genre. She flirts with the first deer, and they dance a bolero and almost kiss, whereas the second is more of a Borscht Belt comic, here to opine about the stupidity of life as an animal. “Weird!” Anuncia exclaims, as the first deer skitters off, then “Weird!” goes the second deer as he leaves the stage. Those proclamations capture the pump-fake motion of Anuncia itself. It’s got so much going for it but dodges away from total commitment. What are we to make of the origins of a life in art? It’s weird!

The Gardens of Anuncia is at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater through December 31.


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  • Theater Reviews: Kin, Hello Again, and the Still Crappy Double Falsehood

Jackson McHenry , 2023-11-21 05:04:25

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