Not many directors and choreographers have the opportunity to direct their own lives and bring them to the stage or screen. Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz” comes to mind, and now there’s Graciela Daniele’s direction of “The Gardens of Anuncia.”
Fosse and Daniele’s life stories couldn’t be more different. While Fosse had to overcome personal demons and substance abuse (or not), Daniele had to deal with Juan and Eva Peron. Michael John LaChiusa’s touching new musical “The Gardens of Anuncia,” directed by Daniele, premiered Monday at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater.
Born in Argentina in the decade before Perón came to power, Daniele began life as a dancer, buoyed by the collective belief in her talent of three strong women – her mother, an aunt and her maternal grandmother. Even Mami’s imprisonment didn’t stop Daniele from fleeing Argentina to pursue a successful life as a ballerina in Europe, which eventually led to her choreographing and then directing on Broadway and elsewhere. Even for theatergoers who have not seen her work in such varied musicals as “Once on This Island,” “The Pirates of Penzance” and “Ragtime,” Daniele’s biography is astounding.
It helps that she has a great storyteller. “The Gardens of Anuncia” is arguably LaChiusa’s best musical because it is also deceptively his simplest. It’s only 90 minutes long, and much of the story is told and sung to us with incredible certainty by Priscilla Lopez, who plays the older Daniele, whom LaChiusa has dubbed Anuncia. The old woman, still moving like a dancer, tends to her garden, and as she chats with a few deer (Tally Sessions is adorable) who have come there to feed on her plants, she remembers remembers her and summons her younger self (Kalyn West) as well as Mommy (Eden Espinosa), Grammama (Mary Testa) and Tia (Andrea Burns).
With the exception of the two male deer, the men (Enrique Acevedo and Sessions) in Anuncia’s past are a disaster. The women would have been better off without her, and one of the surprises in LaChiusa’s book is how brave all of these female characters are in making this declaration. No wonder each of them survived the Perons.
LaChiusa gives his male characters some rousing tangos and marches to sing and dance to. There is no chorus, and as a songwriter, LaChiusa more than makes up for this absence by loading his musical with a variety of duets and quartets that never fail to enchant. While the narrative constantly moves back and forth between Anuncia’s suburban garden and her childhood home in Buenos Aires, it is the music that holds the story together. The visuals are also captivating: Mark Wendland’s set of colored hanging beads provides the easiest way for characters to appear and disappear in the past. Under Daniele’s direction, the synchronicity of all these moving parts is handled with grace and tact.
The score has quite operatic features and some of the singers are not up to its standards. Often in a climax of a phrase, the highest notes do not shimmer, but rather radiate a shine.
At one point, Anuncia blames the deer’s appearance on Americans’ quaint fascination with renewed magical realism. It would be better if LaChiusa just had the deer and didn’t offer a qualifier. He also decided to time the gift on the day Daniele is scheduled to receive Tony’s Lifetime Achievement Award. On the one hand, it inspires far too many stale “I’m not dead yet” jokes. Furthermore, receiving an award is exaggerated, as if it were more important than the work itself.
Both Daniele and LaChiusa are much taller than the Tonys.