|THE GARDENS OF ANUNCIA|
Anyone who thinks great songs for women in the theatre haven’t been written in the past 30 years clearly hasn’t followed the career of the remarkable Michael John LaChuisa, whose powerful and gorgeous tunes have been sung by Idina Menzel, Audra McDonald, Toni Collette, Eartha Kitt, Kate Baldwin and a slew of other fabulous females.
Now we can add the names of Priscilla Lopez, Eden Espinosa, Andrea Burns, Kalyn West and Mary Testa (again) thanks to “The Gardens of Anuncia,” an exquisitely cast and performed musical memoir about – and created in collaboration -- with his good friend, the legendary dancer-choreographer-director Graciela Daniele (who helms the project), now at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theatre.
This glimpse into Daniele’s childhood in Argentina during the treacherous Peron era is quite enlightening, giving us an even greater appreciation for the theatrical life force that Daniele blossomed into. (At age 85, she has received 10 Tony Award nominations and a Lifetime Achievement Tony, among other honors). Further, it gives much of the credit for Daniele’s eventual success to the three women who shaped her life -- her mother, her aunt, and her grandmother – each of whom suffered her own hardships while steadfastly encouraging the youngster in their shared home to follow her dreams of becoming a dancer.
Still, there are a few basic (and fixable) problems with the show: By calling Daniele “Anuncia,” a made-up nickname, some viewers are likely to be confused who the show is actually about. Further, the 90-minute show simply doesn’t dig nearly as deeply as one might wish about her past or her present. Lastly, I expected more choreography than Daniele delivers, even on the smallish Newhouse stage.
But now, for the good news – and it’s very good! LaChiusa’s songs are among the best he’s ever written, including the aptly named “Listen to the Music,” the charming “Never a Goodbye,” and the enchanting “Dance While You Can.” And, unquestionably, the real pleasure is how freely they flow from the mouths of the five extraordinary ladies onstage: the earthy yet-elegant Lopez (as the older Anuncia); the steel-voiced Espinosa (as Anuncia’s firebrand of a mother); the ethereal Burns (as Anuncia’s level-headed aunt); the powerful and hilarious Testa (often walking away with the show as Anuncia’s no-nonsense grandmother); and the lovely West (as the strong-willed yet vulnerable young Anuncia).
Lopez has less singing to do than most of her co-stars, but she must do much of the show’s “heavy lifting” as we listen to the present-day Anuncia as she ruminates in her garden. While putting off burying Tia’s three-month old ashes, Anuncia can be found searching for a lost glove, talking to her plants, or even dancing with a deer (one of the many male roles played by the excellent Tally Sessions; the others are equally well-embodied by Enrique Acevedo).
Mostly, though, Anuncia is trying to come to terms with her past, deciding which memories she can change to suit her mood, and which are simply impermeable. Above all, she is grappling with her inability to forgive her father, who abandoned the family when she was 6, and the never-to-be-dulled pain is palpable in both Lopez and West’s superb performances.
With a little more cultivation, these “Gardens” could blossom into a theatrical staple that will have many a regional production – or maybe become a show truly worthy of a future Broadway production.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Enrique Acevedo, Andréa Burns, Eden Espinosa, Priscilla Lopez, Tally Sessions, Mary Testa, Kalyn West
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater
150 West 65th Street
New York, NY 10023