Anuncia (Priscilla Lopez) communes with her garden, practically conjuring color and scent, talking to the flowers. Delicately manifest by set designer, Mark Wendland, exquisitely lit by Jules Fisher/Peggy Eisenhauer, the atmospheric opening is ripe for magic. Beside Anuncia on a bench are the ashes of beloved Aunt Tia, the last of three formidable women who raised her. Joy and tenderness pervade. Why, thinks the now famous artist, should she put on her eyelashes and travel to the city to receive yet another award? Anuncia loves what she does, but hates show business. “We learn from our gardens to deal with the most urgent question of the time: How much is enough.” Writer/environmental activist Wendell Berry.
Dancer/choreographer/director Graciela Daniele and composer/lyricist Michael John LaChiusa have been friends 30 years, collaborating on several shows. When she spoke to a writing class he was teaching at Columbia, however, he heard new stories of her childhood and was inspired. “I told her right then and there I was going to go home and set her life to music…”
Eden Espinosa (Mami) Kalyn West (Anuncia) Mary Testa (Granmama) and Andréa Burns (Aunt Tia)
The result is a charming, intimate memory piece brought to life by a cast of seven, helmed by Lopez who seems like Daniele incarnate. Arguably the most melodic and accessible of LaChiusa’s works, the enchanting history teases magical realism, but is based on fact. The past replays before us with 70 something Anuncia (Daniele) stepping in and out, sometimes invisible, at others interacting with her youthful self.
Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1940s/1950s. Anuncia’s father, an inveterate gambler and womanizer, abandoned the family to penury when she was six. The feisty girl (graceful, credible Kalyn West) considers him deceased and resolves never to marry. (She will, three times.) Establishing a household to raise the child are three women: Mami (Eden Espinosa – naturally appealing), her sister Tia (Andréa Burns – exuding tenderness) and their mother, boisterous Gramama (the inimitable Mary Testa). It’s a home filled with warmth and female wisdom.
Priscilla Lopez and Kayln West (Anuncia today and then)
Despite abhorrence of the Peróns regime, Mami works in a government office to support the family. She knows when to smile and step aside. Once a week, she goes to a tango club. A fine song about erotic connection without expectation leaves her deserted on the floor. Mami dusts herself off. She’s practical and cynical. Tia is an optimist. “Listen to the Music,” she sings. “Life can be good.” “Why aren’t you married?” Anuncia asks. “I like men, but I find it hard to take them seriously,” comes the reply. Secreted beneath hostile words, Gramama and her irresponsible, merchant marine husband (Enrique Acevedo) remain crazy about each other. She could simply no longer abide living with the man and kicked him out. “Why?” asks her granddaughter. “Because I value life.”
“I became a dancer by accident,” older Anuncia tells us. As a child with flat feet, Mami enrolled her in ballet class to correct her daughter’s arches. Throughout the story, LaChiusa seamlessly weaves her professional trajectory with the aid of his heroine as an adult. We get an admirable sense of when and how she artistically evolved. No mean trick.
Talking deer (the beguiling Tally Sessions as twin brothers) successively wander into adult Anuncia’s garden. One is innocent and sweet, the other angry and self-pitying. The first is better written than his sibling. Running off to a dental appointment is, however, jarringly unmagical as is much of the second brother’s dialogue. Time passes. Anuncia grows into a young woman. The revolution rises. A job in Paris beckons to the young dancer.
Michael John LaChiusa’s chronicle is deftly written, neither too long nor too short; sentimental, but never Hallmark or cloying. Music is inviting, sometimes infectious. Straightforward lyrics vary in originality, but are always in service of narrative.
Direction by Graciela Daniele is aesthetically appealing, integration of engaging dance fluent (choreographed with Alex Sanchez), pacing adroit. Together the collaborators have created something of a jewel.
As adult Anuncia, Priscilla Lopez brings elegance, dignity and life experience to the stage while Kayln West playing her young self is the epitome of freshness and obstinacy.
Tally Sessions (the deer), Priscilla Lopez (Anuncia)
Costumes by Toni-Leslie James are pitch perfect, antlers inspired. There’s no credit for wigs of which women’s are excellent, Granpapa’s obvious.
Kudos to Michael Starobin (orchestrations) and Deborah Abramson (music director).
Photos by Julieta Cervantes
Opening: Priscilla Lopez (Anunica)
The Gardens of Anuncia by Michael John LaChiusa
Directed and Co-Choreographed by Graciela Daniele
Co-Choreographer Alex Sanchez
Through December 31, 2023
Lincoln Center Theater at The Mitzi E. Newhouse