Sunday, December 3, 2023

The Gardens of Anuncia (Lincoln Center Theater)

By Harry Forbes

Composer Michael John LaChiusa honors his frequent collaborator, director/choreographer Graciela Daniele, with a loving portrait of the present day Daniele -- here named Anuncia, and winningly played by Priscilla Lopez -- looking back on her formative years in Peron-era Buenos Aires, where she was raised by her mother, aunt, and salty grandmother. 

These three -- Mami, Tía, and Granmama -- are, as you would expect, beautifully embodied by Eden Espinosa, Andréa Burns, and Mary Testa. We learn that Mami’s husband left her when Anuncia was six, and Grannmama, after early disillusionment, has been separated from her husband for many years, though he does make occasional visits and young Anuncia adores him. But otherwise, Anuncia was raised in an all-female household. 

Mami sees to it that Anuncia is enrolled in ballet class principally because of her daughter’s flat feet, but this sets Anuncia/Graciela on her path to becoming a professional dancer. To earn money for the family, Mami works in a government job in spite of her anti-Peronist political views and the potential danger of her position, a situation that does, in fact, lead to the most dramatic point in the narrative.

Besides the stellar work of the women here, various male roles are taken by Enrique Acevedo and Tally Sessions. The former plays on the grandfather and, briefly, the abusive husband/father, while the latter shines in two whimsical present day sequences wherein Anuncia is visited in her garden by a friendly deer with whom she even dances, and later, the deer’s cynical brother. 

The basic narrative is frankly not dissimilar from other stories we’ve seen of an adolescent blossoming as he/she comes to maturity, but Daniele's particular story is not without interest. Kayln West plays the young Anuncia well even though, as written, certain aspects of the character’s immaturity are exasperating and vexing. 

LaChiusa’s tango-flavored score falls pleasantly on the ear, but it’s difficult to assess the songs, beyond the fact that they are always apt and, of course, bear LaChiusa’s accomplished stamp. And though this is a small scale, almost chamber work, focusing, as it does, on a limited section of Daniele’s truly fascinating life, I found myself wanting a fuller story.

The show was originally developed and produced at the Old Globe. For the record, this is the fifth collaboration between LaChiusa and Daniele at Lincoln Center Theater, following "Hello Again" (1994), "Chronicle of a Death Foretold" (1995), "Marie Christine" (1999), and "Bernarda Alba" (2006).

This is not primarily a dancing show, though West has some balletic moments, and Espinoza has a bracing tango number. But, in the authoritative hands of director/choreographer Daniele (and co-choreographer Alex Sanchez) the overall staging is very fluid

Michael Starobin’s orchestrations under the musical direction of  Deborah Abramson put LaChiusa’s score in the best light. And Mark Wendland’s simple but evocative settings, Toni-Leslie James’ period costumes, the  lighting by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, and Drew Levy’s tasteful sound design are all state-of-the-art.

(Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater in Lincoln Center Theater, 150 West 65th Street;; through December 31)

Photo by Julieta Cervantes: (l.-r.) Eden Espinosa, Kalyn West, Mary Testa and Andréa Burns.