Sue Monk Kidd’s 2001 novel The Secret Life of Bees may have spent two years on The New York Times’ bestseller list, but that doesn’t make it a natural candidate to be turned into a musical. Its story is sprawling, its themes are heavy, there are numerous characters, and the plot is complicated. The new musical that premiered at the Atlantic Theater isn’t an unqualified success, but it does boast gorgeous music by Duncan Sheik and glorious singing by the terrific cast.
Lynn Nottage (Sweat and Ruined) had the difficult job of adapting the novel, and overall she has done a good job. Set in 1964, the story centers on Lily (Elizabeth Teeter), a 14-year-old who lives with her strict, domineering father T-Ray (Manoel Feliciano) in a small town in South Carolina. Lily is apparently responsible for the death of her mother in an accident. Since her mom’s death, Lily has been raised primarily by the family’s maid, Rosaleen (Saycon Sengbloh). After an ugly racial incident in which Rosaleen is beaten on her way to register to vote, Lily and Rosaleen run away. Lily hopes to learn more about her mother by following in her footsteps.
Lily and Rosaleen find refuge on a honey farm in Tiburon, South Carolina. August (LaChanze) is the leader, and she teaches Lily how to be calm around swarms of bees. Along with her sisters May (Anastacia McCleskey) and June (Esa Davis), August worships their statue of a black Virgin Mary. They express their abiding faith in the rousing “Our Lady of Chains,” which closes the first act. It’s one of several stirring songs that pack an emotional punch and show off the powerhouse voices of the company.
The cast also sounds wonderful in the lovely opening number, “River of Melting Sun.” Other Act One highlights include the fiery “Sign My Name,” in which Rosaleen gets up her courage to finally register to vote. Sengbloh and Teeter sing their hearts out in this song and throughout the show. LaChanze performs the title song, with help from the rest of the cast, and she sings the hell out of it.
LaChanze, of course, starred in the original Broadway production of The Color Purple. There are some similarities between that musical and this one, particularly the fact that women propel the plots and do most of the singing. Both also depict the struggles of African Americans in the South. The Secret Life of Bees isn’t likely to enjoy the commercial success of The Color Purple. The story is too sprawling, and there isn’t time to flesh out all the characters.
One supporting character who stands out is Zachary (Brett Gray), a teenager who works with Lily and aims to attend law school. Fleet-footed and spry, Gray displays infectious delight when he sings about his beloved “Fifty-Five Fairlane.” In the second act, he and Teeter do a wonderful job with “What’s Never Been,” in which Zach and Lily imagine a less racist world in the future in which they might dare to fall in love.
In beautiful songs like “What’s Never Been,” Sheik is in top form. There were pretty songs in his Alice by Heart, which debuted at MCC earlier this year, but The Secret Life of Bees is Sheik’s best work since Spring Awakening. The whole cast makes his lush melodies soar. Some of the actors also play musical instruments; they sit around the edge of the open stage alongside the musicians.
Susan Birkenhead (Working) wrote the lyrics, which mirror the emotional journey of Kidd’s book.
Busy director Sam Gold does his best to tell the complex story and keep the action moving along. Bees may not be Gold’s best work, or the most coherent adaptation of a sprawling novel. But Sheik’s glorious music stays with you. I hope there will be a cast album featuring this exceptionally gifted cast.