New York City Theater
"The Secret Life of Bees"
Atlantic Theater Company
f salvation ever comes, will it be at the hands of women and minorities? That’s at least one of the take-aways from the saucy, rousing, tuneful new musical, “The Secret Lives of Bees.” Although the show’s various elements don’t always cohere, its mixture of racial and domestic struggles makes for compelling and emotional entertainment.
Based on the 2001 book by Sue Monk Kidd (two-plus years on the Times’ best-seller list) and already a 2008 film, “Bees” is set in 1964 South Carolina, at a time when passage of the new Civil Rights law gave hope to African-Americans and agita to white supremacists. At its center, spanning both worlds, is Lily (a radiant Elizabeth Teeter) who, guilty that she caused her mother’s death and now living with an abusive father (the excellent, under-rated Manoel Felciano), runs away from home, accompanied by her black nanny, Rosaleen (the moving Saycon Sengbloh).
Finding shelter with three enterprising African-American sisters (named May, June, August) who make a living cultivating bees and selling honey, Lily falls for one of the beekeepers, Zachary (an appealing Brett Gray). Yet she cannot escape either her father or prejudicial southerners who, despite the new law, are determined not to allow blacks, in this case specifically Rosaleen, to vote.
But the women maintain their spiritual faith, mainly through praising a driftwood statue of the Virgin May. It’s she they turn to for solace and protection, a figure which, at last, is also a comfort to Lily.
All these forces – the women, the statue, Zachary – teach the troubled Lily not to despair. As do the bees which, at first, frighten her. Taught to emit love towards the insects in order to receive love from them, she thus learns an essential life lesson. As one lyric goes, “a tree that can’t bend will topple in the wind.”
Lynn Nottage’s book, Duncan Sheik’s music, Susan Birkenhead’s lyrics and Sam Gold’s direction turn Kidd’s novel into a fluid stage work. Mimi Lien’s open, welcoming set, Jane Cox’s lighting and Dede Ayite’s costumes create a homespun atmosphere that avoids preciosity. The technical aspects give the musical room to breathe, although cuts could be made and the central story, that of Lily, could be more fully emphasized.
Still, the evening is fruitful, aided by terrific performances from LaChanze as the nurturing August, Eisa Davis as the sour, reluctant June, Anastacia McCleskey as the suffering May and Nathaniel Stampley as a hapless suitor. And a word for the band which splendidly plays the pulsating folk-gospel-rock score.
Turning fear and hatred into compassion and love, “The Secret Life of Bees” is, despite its time frame, very much of today.
--David A. Rosenberg
July 7, 2019