Music by Duncan Sheik, Lyrics by Susan Birkenhead, Book by Lynn Nottage; Directed by Sam Gold
Off Broadway, Musical
Runs through 7.14.19
Atlantic Theater Company, 336 West 20th Street
by Dan Rubins on 6.13.19
LaChanze and Elizabeth Teeter in The Secret Life of Bees. Photo by Ahron R. Foster.
BOTTOM LINE: Despite its stellar cast, new musical adaptation The Secret Life of Bees is more bumble than honeybee.
As they gather honey, beekeeper August Boatwright points out a machine that “separates the honey, the good from the bad.” Young Lily responds, “Be nice to have something like that for people.” It would be nice to have something like that for musical theater adaptation ideas, too.
For while there’s some sweet solace to be found in The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd’s celebrated 2001 novel about a white girl finding a home in a black female community in 1964 South Carolina, it’s an unwieldy choice for a musical makeover. And though Atlantic Theater Company’s world premiere production features a starry cast of supersonic singers, there’s not much sting behind the buzz.
14-year-old Lily (Elizabeth Teeter), who may have accidentally killed her mother as a toddler and who hates and fears her father (Manoel Feliciano), makes a run for it with her maid Rosaleen (Saycon Sengbloh), who has just put her own life in danger by standing up to a pair of local racists. Lily and Rosaleen (whose journey sometimes registers uneasily as that of a Civil Rights-era Huck and Jim) take refuge with the beekeeping Boatwright sisters, May, June, and August (Anastacia McCleskey, Eisa Davis, and LaChanze), who worship a statue of a Black Virgin Mary. While exploring her feelings for Zachary (Brett Gray), August’s ambitious young employee who dreams of becoming a lawyer, Lily uncovers the connections between the Boatwrights and her mother.
It’s hard to produce a synopsis-like outline of The Secret Life of Bees, though, because Monk Kidd’s emotional but largely meditative book simply doesn’t have the bones for a musical. There’s about as much dramatic momentum here as a musical version of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters. And while those sisters wanted to get to Moscow, it’s not too clear what the Boatwright trio want or whether they’re doing anything in particular to get it. As a result, the show comes across as sleepily episodic, even with some rousing musical numbers: the plot, with long stretches of, well, beekeeping, stubbornly resists being molded into a two-act musical form.
That’s not the only sticking point. Lily narrates the novel, a white voice navigating a landscape primarily populated by black characters. But that’s clearly disconcerted the show’s creators: we are rarely let into Lily’s perspective now, and plenty of new Lily-less scenes replace her omnipresent centrality. Losing Lily’s lens means losing track of the increasingly self-aware evolution of her deep-rooted bigotry, one of the book’s meatiest arcs. And crucially, in diminishing Lily’s importance, the creators have left a leading player-sized hole at the heart of this adaptation. You can feel them trying on different focus points—Is this Rosaleen’s story? Or Zach’s’?—but these worker bee adaptors don’t spend enough time at any one flower to produce much honey.
There’s something unsettled, too, in the heterogenous mixture of styles amongst the creative team. Duncan Sheik’s soft rock flavorings, laced here with an overzealous kick of early R&B and gospel, theatrically served the 19th-century characters of Spring Awakening so well by contrasting those repressed Germans with simmering contemporary musical angst. His melodies, while always well-sung, don’t pack the same punch without transcending time and place, and Susan Birkenhead’s on-the-nose lyrics aren’t the perfect match either. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Lynn Nottage, one of the shrewdest, most powerful playwrights out there (Intimate Apparel, Ruined, Sweat), crafts efficient scenes in her musical theater writing debut, but the dialogue often duplicates the work of the songs that follow.
But what’s most surprising about this adaptation is that the creators shy away from what’s darkest and most difficult about the original book: instead of digging into the novel’s own discomforts—about prejudice, abuse, depression—the musical retreats, sanding the edges of the story until they’re simply dull. Audiences familiar with the book and its 2008 film adaptation will be startled by some of the changes to the plot, most of which are inexplicable. The most wrenching event in the novel, which serves as a catalyst for most of the action that follows, is gone completely, with nothing to replace it: no wonder the second act feels so aimless.
What a hive has been assembled, though: to start off, the extraordinary LaChanze (most recently of Summer: The Donna Summer Musical) is given space to do what she does best, exuding warmth through her honeyed voice and lifting up the material she’s given. McCleskey wails May’s despair with glorious abandon and Davis compellingly conveys steely June’s conflicted heart. The show is at its best when the three sisters come together in searing, a cappella three-part harmony.
Even though Rosaleen feels thinly sketched with only brief shadings of real character, Sengbloh sings thrillingly throughout, pulsing with hope for change, in herself and in her country. And smaller roles feature still more superb singing from Romelda Teron Benjamin and Jai’len Josey, not to mention the winning Nathaniel Stampley as June’s suitor Neil (despite some charming crooning, Neil’s aggressively persistent wooing still borders on distasteful).
The breakout performance, though, might be the ebullient Brett Gray (the star of Netflix’s On My Block) as Zachary, whose optimism about his own future increasingly mingles with his growing pragmatism about the harrowing realities of life for a young black man in the South. Gray gets to share with Teeter the show’s loveliest and most catchy song—“What Do You Love?”
These performers elevate the score from inside a beehive-color-palette semi-circle, ringed with members of the orchestra and dozens of candles. (Sheik and John Clancy created the rich, nine-piece orchestrations, with the powerful brass writing a highlight as conducted by Jason Hart.) It’s an inviting set design (by Mimi Lien) that feels like it’s been built for a far more adventurous production that Sam Gold (late of King Lear and Fun Home) offers. While the show starts out with the whole cast watching the action while sitting onstage (with actors sometimes buzzing in while carrying wires adorned with bees), Gold abandons this successfully mystical atmosphere as soon as the Boatwright sisters enter the story. The potentials of the evocative set end up largely being lost in favor of a much more literal staging.
Not quite sure what it wants to be, or whose story it wants to tell, The Secret Life of Bees offers a reminder of the risks of shaking a hive that’s doing just fine where it is.
(The Secret Life of Bees plays at Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street, through July 14, 2019. The running time is 2 hours 30 minutes with an intermission. Performances are Tuesdays at 7; Wednesdays at 2 and 8; Thursdays and Fridays at 8; Saturdays at 2 and 8; and Sundays at 2. Tickets are $96.50 and $116.50 ($25 tickets are available via the TodayTix lottery) and are available at atlantictheater.org or by calling 866-811-4111.)
The Secret Life of Bees is by Duncan Sheik (music), Susan Birkenhead (lyrics), and Lynn Nottage (book), based on the novel by Sue Monk Kidd. Directed by Sam Gold. Choreography by Chris Walker. Set Design by Mimi Lien. Lighting Design by Jane Cox. Sound Design by Dan Moses Schreier. Costume Design by Dede Ayite. Music Director is Jason Hart. Orchestrations by Duncan Sheik and John Clancy. Stage Manager is Samantha Watson.
The cast is Romelda Teron Benjamin, Joe Cassidy, Vita E. Cleveland, Eisa Davis, Matt DeAngelis, Manoel Feliciano, Bretty Gray, Jai-len Josey, LaChanze, Anastacia McCleskey, Saycon Sengbloh, Nathaniel Stampley, and Elizabeth Teeter.