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A CurtainUp Review
The Secret Life of Bees

"Sometimes you get tired of running against the wind."

Secret Life of Bees
LaChanze (Photo: Ahron R. Foster)
It's been a year full of high-profile literary adaptations on Broadway, from Aaron Sorkin's take on To Kill a Mockingbird to Hadestown's new interpretation of Greek myth. Amidst all this, Atlantic Theater Company's offering of a new theatrical staging of Sue Monk Kidd's bestselling novel The Secret Life of Bees might seem rather unremarkable. But a quick glance at the creative team behind the show reveals incredible ambitions: a book by Lynn Nottage, music by Duncan Sheik, lyrics by Susan Birkenhead, and direction by Sam Gold.

A collaboration among such talented (and highly decorated) artists is enough to catch your eye and set expectations sky high. But at this stage in its development Bees is still unpolished, a project with potential but currently imperfect. The pieces of the puzzle each present their strengths—the score is especially rich, and the cast is filled with superb vocalists who offer impressive performances in bringing it to life—but could use some smoothing out in how they fit together.

As source material goes, Kidd's novel is topical and the kind of civil rights story that is notably important to elevate in the aftermath of last year's controversy over the Green Book Oscar win. That film helped resurface discussion over, and broaden awareness of, the "White Savior" trope that often plagues these kinds of stories: the white character helps the Black one out of some kind of racist circumstances, often discovering something about his or herself in the process and—perhaps unintentionally, but nonetheless detrimentally—implying that the problem of racism has been solved.

While it also uses a white character as a focal point—the young Lily, thoughtfully and subtly portrayed by Elizabeth Teeter—The Secret Life of Bees shouldn't be mistaken for such a narrative. It's true that Lily initially steps in to, yes, save her family's maid Rosaleen (a stoic yet vulnerable Saycon Sengbloh) from an encounter with racist men who attack her while she attempts to register to vote. But as the two take to the road, it becomes clear that Lily is equally in need of saving herself, as she runs from an abusive father (Manoel Felciano) and a haunted family history.

The two end up in the home of the Boatwright sisters, a Black family: the sensitive May (Anastacia McCleskey), stubborn June (Eisa Davis), and matriarchal August (LaChanze). August, a beekeeper whose successful business has earned her a respected position within her community, becomes a mentor for Lily and Rosaleen alike. Opportunities for personal development are freely given out by the authors—Kidd as well as Nottage, whose book makes some plot adjustments, most significantly around May's role. Growth is a universal experience here.

Led by a commanding, vital LaChanze, the sisters are a theatrical force to be reckoned with. Along with other members of the sizable ensemble, they bring emotional power to numerous songs, especially the spiritual-influenced "Take A Hol A My Soul" and "Hold This House Together." August is a more prominent character, but each of the other sisters also has a striking featured moment: June's "Trouble on the House" and May's "Frogs and Fireflies."

In general, though, the prevalence of such "moment" songs throughout the musical creates a sense of characters being developed in isolation. The songs don't feel quite scenic, nor for that matter do the scenes feel like they build to the songs—though they do sometimes seem to rush towards them. And the storytelling can suffer in the gaps between.

The relationship between Lily and Zachary (Brett Gray) is a case in point. Little time is spent developing a bond between these two roles, but their relationship is treated as inevitable simply because she is a young girl and he a young boy. True, teenagers are teenagers and hormones are hormones. But with so little sense of what actually bonds these two people besides plot-based necessity, their songs about love—as well as the pivotal stakes of their interracial romance—feel empty.

Even in such moments, though, everything sounds and looks great. A strong band performs under the direction of Jason Hart; Dan Moses Schreier is responsible for the sound design. Mimi Lien's set has the appearance of minimalism and while offering rich detail, as lighting by Jane Cox bathes the space in warm hues reminiscent of honey. Dede Ayite (costumes) and Cookie Jordan (hair, makeup, and special effects) round out the design with period-appropriate looks and a unified aesthetic.

One could wonder what The Secret Life of Bees might have looked like if it were simply a play by Nottage, or perhaps an opera by Sheik and Birkenhead. As it is, there is an observable friction between the play-within-a-musical and the musical-within-a-play. But this is a show early in its journey; a production this ambitious hardly seems likely to end here. Nottage, Sheik, Birkenhead, and Gold are all talented and have shown from their past projects that they're willing to do the hard work.

Doubtless this project has already undergone numerous tweaks and revisions. The premiere production at Atlantic shows that more will be necessary. But there's great potential here, too, watching this impressive cast bring to life a story that resonates deeply with contemporary concerns. This likely won't be the last we see of Secret Life of Bees, and like its characters, it just has room for growth.

Musical Numbers
Act One
    River of Melting Sun / Company
    The Girl Who Killed Her Mother / Lily
    Sign My Name / Lily, Rosaleen, Ensemble
    Better Than This / Lily, Rosaleen, Ensemble
    Tek A Hol A My Soul / August, June, May, Neil, Queenie, Sugar Girl, Violet
    Tek A Hol A My Soul (Reprise) / June, May, Neil, Queenie, Sugar Girl, Violet
    The Secret Life of Bees / August, Company
    Fifty-Five Fairline / Lily, Zachary
    All About You / Rosaleen
    Our Lady of Chains / Company
Act Two
    River of Melting Sun (Reprise) / August, June, May, Rosaleen
    Who Knew? / Rosaleen
    What Do You Love? / Lily, Zachary
    Trouble on the House / August, June
    What Do You Love? (Reprise) / Lily, Zachary
    Hold This House Together / August, June, May, Neil
    Frogs and Fireflies / Lily, May
    All You Need to Know / August, Company
    What’s Never Been / Lily, Zach, Ensemble
    Marry Me / Neil
    The Secret Life of Bees (Reprise) / Company

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The Secret Life of Bees
Book by Lynn Nottage
Music by Duncan Sheik
Lyrics by Susan Birkenhead
Based on the novel by Sue Monk Kidd
Directed by Sam Gold

with Romelda Teron Benjamin (Queenie), Joe Cassidy (Clayton and others), Vita E. Cleveland (Violet), Eisa Davis (June), Matt DeAngelis (Silas and others), Manoel Felciano (T-Ray), Brett Gray (Zachary), Jai'len Christine Li Josey (Sugar Girl), LaChanze (August), Anastacia McCleskey (May), Saycon Sengbloh (Rosaleen), Nathaniel Stampley (Neil), and Elizabeth Teeter (Lily)
Choreography: Chris Walker
Sets: Mimi Lien
Costumes: Dede Ayite
Lights: Jane Cox
Sound: Dan Moses Schreier
Puppets: AchesonWalsh Studios
Music Director: Jason Hart
Music Contractor: Antoine Silverman
Orchestrations: Duncan Sheik and John Clancy
Incidental Music Arrangements: Duncan Sheik
Vocal Arrangements: Jason Hart
Hair, Makeup, and Special Effects: Cookie Jordan
Fight Director: UnkleDave's Fight House
Dialects: Dawn-Elin Fraser
Production Stage Manager: Samantha Watson
Production Manager: S.M. Payson
Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission
Atlantic Theater Company, Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street (between 8th and 9th Avenues)
Tickets: From $85;, 866-811-4111, or in person at the theater
From 5/12/2019; opened 6/13/2019; closing 7/14/2019
Performance times: Tuesdays at 7 pm, Wednesdays–Saturdays at 8 pm, Saturdays and Sundays at 2 pm; Sunday evening performances at 7 pm on June 6 and 16; Monday evening performance at 7 pm on July 1; Wednesday afternoon performances at 2 pm on June 19 and 26
Reviewed by Jacob Horn based on 6/12/2019 performance

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