In her first musical, two-time Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Lynn Nottage has created an exquisite stage adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd’s best-selling novel, The Secret Life of Bees, in its world premiere at Atlantic Theater Company. She has been joined by composer Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening, American Psycho, Alice by Heart) who has written beautiful music and lyricist Susan Birkenhead whose words not only forward the plot (a rare art these days) but also define character.
Director Sam Gold’s minimalist production gives the actors room to tell their engrossing story without any fuss or directorial intrusion. The cast led by Tony Award winner LaChanze, Tony nominees Saycon Sengbloh and Manoel Felciano and Elizabeth Teeter as 14-year-old Lily Melissa could not be better. A coming of age story which takes place during tumultuous times, The Secret Life of Bees is set during the hot summer of 1964. President Johnson has signed the Civil Rights Act but in Mississippi three young civil rights workers are murdered. Lily Melissa Owens lives on a lonely peach farm in Sylvan, South Carolina, with her father known as T-Ray and her nanny and housekeeper Rosaleen. Her mother Deborah has died under mysterious circumstances when Lily was four and her abusive father has told her that she killed her. Brought up by only Rosaleen for company, Lily is an introspective teenager without friends living so far from town.
When Rosaleen decides to register to vote for the first time, she is assaulted by the two most racist men in town and finds herself under arrest. Lily springs her from the hospital and they flee to Tiburon, SC, a town that Lily’s mother had written on the back of a honey jar label, a picture of the Black Madonna, and might hold clues to her story. There they discover the three Boatwright sisters who raise bees under the label of the Black Madonna, an image of the Virgin Mary as a black woman, and worship a depiction of her, a statue that was actually a figurehead from a 19th century ship.
August and her sisters, June, a dour high school history teacher, and simple and sensitive May (whose twin sister April committed suicide), recognize Lily as Deborah’s daughter but take her in without revealing what they know. Lily learns to take care of the bees as an apprentice with August and Rosaleen helps May around the house. While Lily attempts to make sense of the world as civil rights battles are being fought all over the South, her friendship with Zach, August’s godson, leads to his being arrested, and T-Ray eventually locates Lily in Tiburon. By the end of the summer Lily has learned her mother’s story and has found change all around her.
Nottage’s book is faithful to the novel while at the same time reducing some of the melodrama and streamlining the story to reduce the number of characters to a cast of 13. Sheik’s score may be his most lush and melodic and the use of guitar and cello gives the music an appropriate folk feeling. The songs are a mix of gospel, R&B and pop which gives each of the main characters a song that explains their deepest thoughts. The rousing gospel numbers, “River of Melting Sun,” “Tek a Hol a My Soul” “Hold This House Together, “Our Lady of Chains,” make use of a great many beautiful voices in unison.
The songs are also used to tell us the characters’ inner thoughts which could not be revealed otherwise. Lily introduces herself with “The Girl Who Killed Her Mother,” while Rosaleen states her desire to vote in “Sign My Name.” Zachary sings of his great love for his “Fifty-Five Fairlane” in the bouncy pop ballad. August teaches Lily her trade in the lovely title song, while May teaches her about nature in “Frogs and Fireflies.” Rosaleen gives Lily a lesson in growing up in “(It’s Not Always) All About You,” while Neil gives June and Lily a lesson in love in the plaintive “Marry Me.” Zach gives us all a lesson in civil rights in “What’s Never Been.”
Director Gold has eschewed an intrusive directorial concept as he has made use of in several of his recent productions such as The Glass Menagerie, Othello and the recent King Lear. Instead he uses an almost bare stage with many chairs, some boxes and a table (in Mimi Lien’s lovely set design) that are continually rearranged to create all the necessary places. The shrine with the icon of the Lady in Chains and candles, however, is quite literal. Dede Ayite’s costumes are both colorful and redolent of the time and period. Designer Jane Cox paints with light while the sound designer Dan Moses Schreier makes the most of his opportunities including the mystical humming of the bees. AchesonWalsh Studios makes those bees and their swarms extremely real in a stylized way. The composer and John Clancy are both credited with the melodic orchestrations, while the vocal arrangements are the work of musical director Jason Hart who also plays piano.
As Lily, Teeter beautifully delineates the dreams and fears of this lonely 14-year- old who asks a great many questions and wants to be a writer. LaChanze’s monumental August Boatwright is a very compassionate, understanding woman as tactful as she is wise. Felciano establishes T-Ray’s anger and violence in a few deft scenes. Although not given as much time as in the novel, Sengbloh is a forceful presence as Rosaleen who also blossoms under the Boatwrights’ roof.
Eisa Davis as June conveys her pent-up anger, frustration and rage at the way things are, and also plays a lovely cello, her one source of comfort. As the simple sister May, Anastacia McCleskey adds another dimension to this unusual family. Nathaniel Stampley’s Neil, the principal of the black high school and June’s long time suitor, is a man of quiet integrity and honor. As Zachary, the black teenager who befriends Lily, Brett Gray is a sweet presence who understands more about the racial divide in the South than Lily does. Romelda Teron Benjamin, Vita E. Cleveland and Jai’Len Christine Li Josey add able support as the Daughters of Mary, neighbors who join the Boatwright sisters in their weekly religious rituals, and augment the excellent nine-piece band. Joe Cassidy and Matt DeAngelis show versatility playing a series of white men in the two communities as well as the Radio Announcer who narrates the historic events of the summer of 1964.
The Secret Life of Bees is that rare musical which is as faithful to the material as is possible on the stage. The only flaw in Lynn Nottage’s first book for a musical is that it is lacking in humor, but then the original novel had rather little also. In one of three musicals to premiere this year (along with Because of Winn Dixie at Goodspeed Opera House this summer), Tony Award winner Duncan Sheik’s score may be his finest yet, while the lyrics by Susan Birkenhead (Tony nominated for Jelly’s Last Jam) are exactly right for the storyline and the characters. The cast led by La Chanze is so convincing that you forget that you have seen many of them in other roles. The Secret Life of Bees tells a story similar to To Kill a Mockingbird and has the same kind of wisdom of the world. It is a show that should not be missed and will stay with you for a long time to come.
The Secret Life of Bees (extended through July 21, 2019)
Atlantic Theater Company
Linda Gross Theater, 336 W. 20th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.atlantictheater.org
Running time: two hours and 20 minutes including one intermission