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Paulanne Simmons

“The Secret Life of Bees” Does Not Live Up to the Buzz

"The Secret Life of Bees,"
Directed by Sam Gold
Atlantic Theater Company
336 West 20 Street
From May 12, 2019
Monday & Tuesday at 7pm, Wednesday, Friday & Saturday at 8pm, Wednesday, Saturday & Sunday at 2pm.
Tickets: $96.50-$116.50
Closes July 21, 2019
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons June 29, 2019

Fans of Sue Monk Kidd’s 2002 novel, “The Secret Life of Bees,” certainly greeted with great enthusiasm the news that it was soon to be turned into a musical. And considering the book had spent two years on the New York Times best seller list and was made into a film in 2008, this news came as no surprise. However, the musical that was created by Lynn Nottage, Duncan Sheik and Susan Birkenhead does not completely meet the novel’s potential or the expectations of its fans.

LaChanze, Jai’Len Christine Li Josey, Vita E. Cleveland, Elizabeth Teeter, Romelda Teron Benjamin in Atlantic Theater Company’s"The Secret Life of Bees." Photo by Ahron R. Foster.

True, Sheik and Birkenhead have created a gorgeous score that mixes gospel, R&B, blues and a bit of African chant. And the cast performs it beautifully. But the songs seldom advance the plot. Sometimes they seem to be more about atmosphere than motivation.

The problems come from several sources. The first is Nottage’s book.

“The Secret Life of Bees” is a coming-of-age novel set in the segregated south. It is very much in the style of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” or Carson McCullers “The Member of the Wedding,” works with which Kidd is no doubt familiar.

The novel is narrated by 14-year-old Lily Owens, and thus everything that happens is filtered through her eyes. It recounts the adventures of Lily, who is running away from her abusive father, T-Ray; and the family’s housekeeper, Rosaleen, who is running away from racism. With only a honey label picturing a Black Madonna and printed in Tiburon, S.C., to guide them, they eventually find a group of enterprising African American sisters, August, May and June, who have set up a business tending bees and distributing their honey. And they’ve created their own religion centered on a statue of a the Black Madonna of the postcard.

But in the musical, Nottage has shifted much of the attention away from Lily (Elizabeth Teeter) to sisters August (LaChanze), May (Anastacia McCleskey) and June (Eisa Davis). She also takes considerable interest in the spunky Rosaleen (Saycon Sengbloh), who has the admirable goal of voting after President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act, as well as the fate of Zachary (Brett Gray,) who works for the sisters, wants to become a lawyer and predictably becomes a first love for Lily.

Saycon Sengbloh, Nathaniel Stampley, Eisa Davis, Anastacia McCleskey, &LaChanze in "The Secret Life of Bees." Photo by Ahron R. Foster.

In fact both Sengbloh and Gray have some of the bestsongs in the show, Rosaleen’s “All About You” and “Who Knew?” and Zachary’s “Fifty-Five Fairlane,” songs which give both performers the chance to knock it out of the park. Lily has only one song, “The Girl Who Killed Her Mother,” to call her own, and it presents a very limited view of her. Much of the time, Teeter, who is excellent when given the chance, stands around with little to do.

Although Nottage mostly keeps the plotlines loosely together, she has lost the emotional core of the story. The sisters are interesting at times. June was disappointed in love and refuses to accept the marriage proposals of a rather insistent school principal named Neil (Nathaniel Stampley). May has never recovered from the death by suicide of her twin and periodically seeks solace at the feet of the Black Madonna. But none of the supporting characters has enough of a story to hold the musical together, despite Nottage’s attempts at enlarging their role.

The second problem is Sam Gold’s direction. “The Secret Life of Bees” is firmly set in rural South Carolina in 1964. But you would never know this from the minimalist set, which devotes more space to the musicians than to scenery. And those hovering bees held on wires manipulated by actors just get in the way. In fact all the time devoted to bees and statue-worshipping have the potential of turning the musical into a cult classic.

It’s easy to see why Nottage was drawn to this novel with its strong black women. It’s also easy to see why she couldn’t resist the temptation to go astray.

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