The Gardens of Anuncia

Original Off-Broadway Cast, 2024 (Ghostlight) 4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5) From the shimmery first notes of The Gardens of Anuncia, listeners will get the feeling they’re entering a magical land. What follows is a gem of a show that tells the story of the upbringing of the great Broadway choreographer Graciela Daniele. (The character here closely based on Daniele is known as Anuncia.) The roles of the three women who raised Daniele, known as “Mami,” “Grandmama,” and “Tia,” are brought to vivid life by Michael John LaChiusa’s extravagant melodies and precise lyrics, and the performers of these roles provide the listener with great gifts: the soaring vocals of Eden Espinosa (Mami), the undeniable charm of Andrea Burns (Tia), and the singular combination of brashness and heart possessed by Mary Testa as Grandmama. (Who else could bring you to the verge of tears with the lyrics “Eat your macaroni!/I don’t want you to be hungry?”) The title role is played dually by Priscilla Lopez, who provides the proper serenity and charm in narrating the show as the older Anuncia, and Kalyn West, who does an admirable job as the innocent, young version of the character, being taught the ways of the world by her three female mentors. The show risks feeling saccharine towards the beginning, as most of the early songs are simply depictions of the happy lives of the four women. But the music is never uninteresting — listeners should not be surprised if they find themselves humming the opening refrain about “Mami, Grandmama, Tia, and me.” The show takes a sharp left turn once Anuncia’s mother is taken as a political prisoner; in “The Vigil,” LaChiusa’s haunting music does justice to the confusion and anxiety every member of the family must have felt during that difficult time. And in “The Story of That Man,” Anuncia stops serving as a secondary character to the women who raised her, coming to the forefront as she shares the traumatic and limited memories she has of her father. Lovely diversions from these more serious moments are provided by two singing deer, both played by Tally Sessions, who appear in the older Anuncia’s garden to impart an important life lesson: “Dance while you can.” Sessions brings a vaudevillian touch to the proceedings, and these numbers brilliantly fit with the rest of the score despite their surface silliness. This show never feels like a vanity project, but Daniele’s ultimate mission in creating it is clear throughout: To give the three strong women who raised her their due. That goal is accomplished with special beauty in the finale, “Never a Goodbye,” in which older Anuncia finally buries the ashes of her aunt. Considering this recording’s many delights, no listener will be sorry that they let LaChiusa and Daniele lead them down this garden path. — Charles Kirsch