Michael John LaChiusa’s musicals are marked by a bold theatricality. He is always experimenting with form and musical texture and he never repeats himself. With each new show, it’s exciting to see what he’s cooked up and this time is no exception.
The Gardens of Anuncia is a memory musical based on a lightly-fictionalized version of director/choreographer Graciela Daniele’s childhood in Argentina under the Perón regime. Daniele’s stand-in, Anuncia (Priscilla Lopez), first appears as an eighty-year-old woman reflecting on her past before driving into the city to collect a Lifetime Achievement Tony Award. Anything can happen in her magic realist garden, including the appearance of her younger self (Kalyn West) and the trio of women who raised her: Mami Carmen (Eden Espinosa), Granmama Magdalena (Mary Testa), and Tía Lucia (Andréa Burns). LaChiusa’s musical jumps around her memory to give us a full picture of these four extraordinary women and how Anuncia – and Daniele – came of age.
LaChiusa’s score has a jangly, youthful feel when Older Anuncia travels back in her mind. Daniele and co-choreographer Alex Sanchez give West graceful ballet-inflected moves to sweep the past forward into Anuncia’s garden. Mami, Granmama, and Tía’s voices echo back at her through time and we are introduced to them as exuberant, funny, strong, and soulful women, clearly all of whom have rubbed off on Older Anuncia. But LaChiusa and Anuncia’s memory don’t stay in the happy times. The score has a broad reach, taking us into a dance club, a deer’s mind (yes), and through the tortured political climate. This isn’t an Evita-view of Perón’s legacy; it’s one from someone who actually lived through it.
Lopez delivers several monologues with a remarkable, commanding presence. It’s never unclear who’s in charge and how that colors what we’re seeing. LaChiusa’s writing manages to capture the perspective of her younger self while filtering in Older Anuncia’s reckoning of those feelings through the passage of time. Lopez is younger than Daniele, but their careers span a similar period of time. It’s brilliant casting – Lopez often feels like she is Daniele, or like Daniele’s stories are her own. There is a seamless blend of character and actor. Lopez is so comfortable she takes Mark Wendland’s green-floored set from an abstract space into a believable, breathing garden.
The Espinosa-Testa-Burns trio are excellent together and each given a moment (or two) to shine on their own. When LaChiusa has these three very different voices sing together, it’s captivating music. Burns’ soprano floats like the clouds above Espinosa’s central flowers planted in Testa’s earthy ground. Espinosa is given two stunning songs, once when she goes out dancing to relieve the pressure of working for Perón’s government and being a single mother to a teenager and once when she relives the trauma of Anuncia’s gambling, abusive father. Espinosa’s singing is, of course, unmatched, but it’s really her ability to play not only the truth of the moment, but Anuncia’s interpretation of what her mother was experiencing. LaChiusa writes big, overwhelming music in these songs that captures the shock and pain Anuncia feels for her mother.
The lighting design, by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer for the world premiere production at the Old Globe Theatre in 2021 and recreated at Lincoln Center by David Lander, is marked by a beautiful use of color that transforms the blank, ropelike strands at the back of Wendland’s set into the many flowers and vegetables Anuncia has planted. Fisher, Eisenhauer, and Lander also turn these strings into transparent walls and prison bars and a manifestation of the obfuscation of time on memory, all with lighting. It’s an evocative feat of design: moving, gorgeous, and practical at once.
Michael John LaChiusa’s Wikipedia page lists that he “is best known for musically esoteric shows”, which reads a little pejoratively. LaChiusa’s music requires you to listen, to lean in and follow. It fuses with the dramatic moment to become both text and subtext. His longtime collaborator, orchestrator Michael Starobin, dives into those depths and brings them out with unique instrumentation that sounds unlike any other composer. A LaChiusa score is its own beast, one that wants you to take it home and live with it in order to understand it more fully. I can’t wait to do that with The Gardens of Anuncia.