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The Secret Life of Bees

Theatre Review by David Hurst - June 13, 2019

Elizabeth Teeter and Manoel Felciano
Photo by Ahron R. Foster

Following their award-winning, smash hits Spring Awakening and The Band's Visit (and forgiving misguided debacles like This Ain't No Disco), the Atlantic Theater Company may have another hit musical on its hands with The Secret Life of Bees. That is, they may have a hit if they can fine-tune the second act to match the level of polish already evident in the first. Based on the 2001 best-selling novel by Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees boasts a book by Lynn Nottage, a score by Duncan Sheik (music) & Susan Birkenhead (lyrics), and direction by Sam Gold, who won a Tony for shepherding the groundbreaking Fun Home. There's so much that's wonderful about this gorgeous new musical, including its stellar cast, it would be a shame if the writers don't make the changes the show needs to cohere and soar.

Set in June,1964, in rural South Carolina with the civil-rights struggle as its backdrop, The Secret Life of Bees is the story of Lily Owens (Elizabeth Teeter), a lonely 14-year old white girl, and Rosaleen Daise (Saycon Sengbloh), an African-American domestic who acts as Lily's surrogate mother and a buffer against Lily's tyrannical and controlling father, T-Ray (Manoel Felciano). Lily's life to date has been shaped by the memory of the death of her mother, Deborah, when she was a small child, and her father's cruelty to her ever since. Hearing on the radio that President Johnson has signed the Civil Rights Act, Rosaleen makes the decision to go register to vote and Lily goes with her, but they're thwarted along the way by racists (Joe Cassidy & Matt DeAngelis) and Rosaleen is arrested. The two ultimately escape and make their way to ‘Tiburon, SC,' because it was written on the back of a picture of the Virgin Mary as a black woman which Lily found among Deborah's possessions. Upon arriving in Tiburon, they see some jars of honey for sale and the label is the same image as the picture of the black Virgin Mary. They receive directions to the honey's source, the Boatwright house, where they are welcomed by May (Anastacia McCleskey), June (Eisa Davis) and August Boatwright (LaChanze), the three sisters who own the house and the honey making business.

Lily and Rosaleen invent a story about who they are and why they're traveling, but August immediately recognizes Lily as Deborah's daughter, a woman all of them know from their past. Lily begins working as August's assistant, learning about bees and how honey is made, while Rosaleen helps out around the house. Lily learns that May had a twin sister, April, who killed herself when she was 15-years old. April's death has left May extremely, emotionally fragile and the least little thing send her into a depression. Meanwhile, a teenage, African-American boy named Zach (Brett Gray), who also works for August on the bee farm and aspires to be a lawyer, stirs new feelings in Lily as they work together harvesting the honey from the bee hives. And the entire house watches as schoolteacher June refuses her boyfriend Neil's (Nathaniel Stampley) many proposals of marriage. As time passes, both Lily and Rosaleen have their horizons expanded by living with cultured black women who have gone to college and own their own business. Additionally, they get to see and experience the sister's religion which uses a statue of a black Mary as its altar. A group of women called The Daughters of Mary join them in their homemade religion, including Queenie (Romelda Teron Benjamin), Sugar Girl (Jai'Len Josey) and Violet (Vita E. Cleveland).

Under Gold's clean direction, the first act of The Secret Life of Bees unfolds with a charm that's thrilling. Opening with the gorgeous "River of Melting Sun," the cast sings Jason Hart's wonderful vocal arrangements beautifully, as they do throughout the rest of Sheik's lush and jubilant score. Sengbloh sings a stirring "Sign My Name" as an anthem of political action, while LaChanze's take on the title song is as mesmerizing as it is metaphorical. As Zach, Gray is given the upbeat, Motown-infused "Fifty-Five Fairlane" about his car to sing to Lily. It doesn't really work lyrically, considering the conversation they were having, but Gray's delivery (courtesy of choreographer Chris Walker) is so infectious it would be a shame to replace it. The first act concludes with Sengbloh's Rosaleen reminding Lily that it isn't "All About You" as Birkenhead and Nottage steer the focus off Lily and onto her new family. And the entire cast lifts the first act's gospel numbers, "Tek A Hol A My Soul" and "Our Lady of Chains" to the roof, led by this show's secret weapon, the shattering voices of Romelda Benjamin and Jai'Len Josey.

The storytelling in the second act, on the other hand, isn't as assured or integrated as the first act. Nottage takes greater liberties with Kidd's novel specifically involving Zach's run-in with the law. In the book he's collateral damage in an arrest sweep later cleared by an eyewitness, and in the musical he and Lily are stopped in his car by the police and he's arrested for assaulting her despite her protestations. Additionally, in the book when May learns Zach has been arrested she's so overwrought she drowns herself in the nearby river, a melodramatic fate spared May in Nottage's libretto. Nottage also saves Zach from the serious assault charge by a contrived "favor" the sheriff owes his mentor, the white lawyer Clayton Forrest. But when he returns, Zach has a lengthy scar running down the left side of his face which seems melodramatic in its own right considering Nottage decision not to allow May her suicide.

Musically, the second act is also much weaker than the first. Other than a lovely duet between Zach and Lily, "What Do You Love?" and the rousing, a cappella "Hold This House Together," the music feels at odds with where Nottage's book is taking the story. The most serious misstep is "Marry Me," in which Neil asks June to marry him one last time. It's a jaunty, Calypso-inspired melody which Stampley delivers well, but it's out of place in this score and needs to be completely rethought. Finally, when Lily's father tracks her down in Tiburon and demands she return with home with him, it would seem the perfect opportunity to give T-Ray a searing soliloquy in which he both reveals Deborah's disdain for him but her love for Lily, something he's kept from Lily her entire life. And with the stellar actor Manoel Felciano, superb throughout, cast as T-Ray, it's an enormous missed opportunity not to give him a chance to express his feelings in song.

Unfortunately, if you don't already have tickets to The Secret Life of Bees you're out of luck because the remainder of the run is completely sold-out. Keep your fingers crossed the production team makes some tweaks to the second act and finds the capitalization to move this show to Broadway.

The Secret Life of Bees
Through July 14
Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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