The new theater season has been blessed by a profound and deeply moving musical with a book by Lynn Nottage, score by Duncan Sheik, lyrics by Susan Birkenhead and direction by Sam Gold, an immensely talented group. “The Secret Life of Bees” is, of course, based on the very popular novel by Sue Monk Kidd, and the Atlantic Theater Company can take pride in its presentation. Although an adaptation, the staging deserves to be judged entirely on its own whether or not one has read the novel.
I note that in my review of the earlier film based on the book, I called the adaptation a tearjerker (see under Search). There is no such put-down about this fine stage version, which is a majestic telling of a sensitive story set in the context of the civil rights movement and boasting glorious music sung by a superb cast and interpreted by a band of nine excellent musicians under the direction of Jason Hart.
The story is set in Sylvan and Tiberon, South Carolina, in the summer of 1964. Elizabeth Teeter is first-rate as Lily, the 14-year-old white girl who has an abusive father (T-Ray, portrayed by Manoel Feliciano), and escapes his clutches along with rescuing African-American Rosaleen (wonderful Saycon Sengbloh), who has worked for T-Ray. Bonding in their flight for freedom, Lily and Rosaleen take to the road and are soon given shelter by the Boatwright family of beekeepers who produce a known brand of honey, and the relationships that develop form the basis of the expanding plot.
LaChanze, ever the effective actress and singer, plays August, one of the Boatwright sisters, and she gets the opportunity to excel in powerful numbers, as do Sengblow and Teeter. Much of the inherent emotion is delivered through song.
Lily sings the painful “The Girl Who Killed Her Mother,” expressing the guilt she feels for her mother’s death. (A weakness in the show is that there is not enough clarity as to what actually happened.) In the plot Lily desperately needs to know that her mother loved her, and issues with her father require confrontation.
Dramatizing the fight against racism confronting African-Americans at the time, Rosaleen, Lily and the ensemble sing a rousing number, “Sign My Name,” about asserting the right to vote. Other songs reflecting aspects of life’s struggles include “All About You,” “Better Than This,” “Tek a Hol A My Soul,’ “Trouble on the House,” and “Hold This House Together.”
A tender relationship develops between Lily and a young black, Zachary (appealing Brett Gray), who is working at the beehive to earn money for college. Their feelings are best conveyed when they sing “What Do You Love?” Being seen alone together leads to Zachary’s harrowing racist arrest and the urgent need to free him.
What’s going on in the country at the time is voiced via a radio broadcaster, and Lynn Nottage’s book makes a point of placing the characters in that context. There is a side story of Nathaniel Stampley as Neil, persistently pursuing the reluctant Boatwright sister June (Eisa Davis) with requests of marriage, and he has a delightful, audience-pleasing song, “Marry Me,” which he delivers on bended knee. The third Boatwright sister is emotionally fragile May, played by Anastacia McCleskey.
The people portrayed become very much alive, which gives heft to the production instead of the story coming across as merely polemical and a structure for the music to be wrapped around. The artistic elements are well integrated.
Mimi Lien’s set design provides the entire stage for Gold’s direction to unfold, with the band visible and split into three groups. There is a large statue of a black Madonna, to whom cast members pray in song. There are lovely touches, including ensemble members circulating wands with end lights to simulate bees buzzing about.
Chris Walker provides some striking choreography, and further credit is due Dede Ayite (costumes), Jane Cox (lights), Dan Moses Schreier (sound) as well as others responsible for bringing the total production together with such effectiveness. “The Secret Life of Bees” merits a long life, possibly following its run at the Atlantic Theater with a Broadway venue. At the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street. Phone: 866-811-4111. Reviewed June 19, 2019.