If you are looking for an off-Broadway musical with killer songs and a stellar cast, look no further. This musical adaption of the best-selling novel, The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd is moving, thoughtful and musically exhilarating. Adapted for the stage by two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, with music by Tony and Grammy Award winner Duncan Sheik, and directed by Tony Award winner Sam Gold at Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater, it is not too fanciful to predict that this pedigreed production may soon be heading to Broadway.
Right front the start, it’s clear there’s going to be trouble. After a brief musical introduction the entire cast intones the ominous-sounding Rumble in the Distance, and the actors separate on stage along racial lines.
It’s 1964 in South Carolina, and President Johnson has just signed the civil rights bill into law.
Lily (Elizabeth Teeter) is a 14 years old white girl who lives on a peach farm run by her abusive, deeply unhappy father. Rosaleen (Saycon Sengbloh) is their black housekeeper, who contends daily with the condescension meted out to African Americans in the South of the 1960s.
The two girls have both lost their mothers at an early age, and have now formed a strong bond of mutual reliance. With each other’s support, they will muster the courage and determination to break free of the oppressively white, racist, misogynist men who surround them.
On a hot sunny day, Lily wants to go to the local fair, but is grounded for no particular reason by her cruel, irascible father. Rosaleen wants to exercise her newly acquired right to register to vote, and is heading to town to do just that.
Lily, defying her father, joins her, but on their way to town they are stopped and taunted by three white men. Rosaleen stands up to them and a confrontation ensues. The black housemaid is badly beaten, and when Lily later finds out that one of the men who assaulted her is the town’s most ardent racist, who may now be setting out to kill Rosaleen, the two girls run away.
They eventually arrive at a beekeeping farm run by three black sisters who go by the names of May (Anastacia McCleskey), June (Eisa Davis), and August LaChanze), and who offer them work and shelter. Zach (Brett Gray), a young black worker at the farm befriends Lily, and a tender love blossoms between the two. Needless to say, when the white townspeople find out, Zach is beaten and jailed.
The onstage chemistry between Elizabeth Teeter and Brett Gray is riveting, and provides some of the most memorable scenes in the play. Considering their young age, the technical skill and emotional depth of these two young actors is thrilling.
But this new musical offers many more delights that can be listed here. In addition to several rousing ensemble pieces, performed with spirited on-stage musical accompaniment, a special nod must go to the show-stopping numbers performed by the very gifted Saycon Sengbloh and to the soaring melodies of the title song performed by the eternally terrific LaChanze.
(Photo by Ahron R. Foster)
"The Secret Life of Bees avoids that trap only in its songs. One of them is the so-called “I Want” number: the one identifying the main character’s goal, establishing the milieu and initiating the plot. Mr. Sheik and Ms. Birkenhead have provided a fine one: a righteous Motown-style blues called “Sign My Name.” Unfortunately, it’s not for Lily but for Rosaleen. Still, Ms. Sengbloh sends the song — about registering to vote — out of the park. In a show looking for direction, maybe that should have been a hint."
Jesse Green for New York Times
"One gets the sense that everyone involved is trying to avoid the suggestion that comes through in the show’s final image: that the central function of the story’s black women is to pollinate the little white flower that is Lily."
Adam Feldman for Time Out New York
"There's a tremendously appealing show full of promise here, far more captivating and subtle than the syrupy 2008 screen adaptation. But while the first act rarely stumbles, Act 2 is less satisfying, as multiple narrative strands come into play, with not all the character arcs reaching the emotional peaks they seem to demand."
David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter
"The feeling of empowerment, uplift and solidarity could come across in lesser hands as maudlin, naive or simplistic. But this creative team and ensemble of performers create characters that are fresh, a credible story that is transformative and a spiritual center — enriched by a glorious and haunting score by Duncan Sheik and Susan Birkenhead — that would make even a non-believer sing "Hallelujah!""
Frank Rizzo for Variety