Is The Secret Life of Bees Musical as Sweet as We Hoped It Would Be?
Lynn Nottage, Duncan Sheik, and Susan Birkenhead adapt Sue Monk Kidd's popular novel for the stage.
There's certainly a confidence-inspiring creative team behind The Secret Life of Bees, a new stage adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd's best-selling novel turned Hollywood film, now making its world premiere at the Atlantic Theater Company.
The production features music by Tony-winning Spring Awakening composer Duncan Sheik, lyrics by Tony nominee Susan Birkenhead (Jelly's Last Jam), a book by two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage (Sweat), and direction by Fun Home Tony winner Sam Gold (whose classic play revivals far outnumber his musical projects). On top of their award-winning bona fides, these artists share a reputation for prioritizing artistry over commercial appeal. The Secret Life of Bees elegantly preserves that uniting quality, with a meaty book that draws sympathetic characters, songs that allow for plenty of soul-baring, and sparse staging that steps out of the way of the musical's talented cast. The biggest hurdle that comes with a team of visionary artists is the accompanying crowd of competing visions — something The Secret Life of Bees has yet to negotiate.
The Secret Life of Bees is a book-forward musical— as it should be when you have a dramatist like Nottage at the wheel. Her writing stands so solidly on its own, you get the sense that a little bit of surgery could pluck Sheik's songs right out and leave us with a sufficiently robust play about the civil rights-era South. For those who are new to Kidd's story, it follows a 14-year-old white girl named Lily (acted and sung onstage with compelling maturity by Elizabeth Teeter) who lives in small-town South Carolina with her abusive father, T-Ray (Manoel Felciano), and black housekeeper Rosaleen (Saycon Sengbloh). President Lyndon B. Johnson has just passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, setting Rosaleen on a mission to register to vote (musicalized in the song "Sign My Name"), which lands her beaten and bruised in jail.
Lily, meanwhile, finds among her deceased mother's belongings a picture of a black Virgin Mary with the name of the town Tiburon on the back, inspiring her to spring Rosaleen from the hospital she's been transferred to and, together, run away to Tiburon — a journey that's half an escape and half a quixotic quest for answers about Lily's mother. Clues point them to the home of beekeeper August Boatwright (LaChanze) and her sisters who let Rosaleen and Lily stay and work — a decision with personal motives for August, the details of which are doled out gradually.
There's not much tension in August's disclosure of her connection to Lily's mother — or in other parts of the meandering yet sporadically poignant narrative. Sengbloh, who is a radiant presence throughout, gives Rosaleen a beautiful moment of spiritual awakening in the ensemble number "Tek A Hol A My Soul," and LaChanze, who's spent the past few years in Donna Summer glam, reminds us what a warm presence can accompany her powerhouse voice, most notably in the Act 1 title song. You can also feel the audience lean into "What Do You Love?", a duet between Lily and Zachary (a standout performance by Brett Gray), the star-crossed teenage lovers kept apart by racial taboos.
Sheik, as always, writes pleasant melodies — for this score, he blends an impassioned spiritual sound with the gently flowing rhythms of a summer in the American South. He even momentarily dabbles in '60s Motown with Zachary's love letter to his car, "Fifty-Five Fairlane," a scene-stealing number for Gray and a taste of pure joy that's all too infrequent in this production (Birkenhead's lyrics also get a moment to shine).
The music, however, sits on top of Nottage's book, and neither element particularly supports or propels the other dramatically. Gold's direction adapts a similar split personality, digging into the slower, deliberate cadence of a play for Nottage's book scenes, then suddenly upshifting for each Sheik-Birkenhead musical number (enhanced by Chris Walker's expressive choreography). Gold's creative team — which features scenic design by Mimi Lien, costume design by Dede Ayite, lighting design by Jane Cox, and sound design by Dan Moses Schreier — meanwhile remains conspicuously inconspicuous (Lien's set primarily comprises a single altar at the back of the stage, surrounded by the band).
The commitment to minimalism successfully accentuates great performances. The downside is that it keeps all of the show's seams exposed. Erring on the side of minimalism is far preferable to putting huge theatrical Band-Aids on the musical's problems. But for The Secret Life of Bees to reach the realm of magical transcendence of which the story is capable, its authors need to engage in a little more cross-pollination.