My Variety Review: 'The Secret Life of Bees'
There’s a sweet sense of sisterhood that’s simply divine in “The Secret Life of Bees,” the heartwarming new musical at the Atlantic Theater Company based on Sue Monk Kidd’s bestselling 2002 coming-of-age novel, set in South Carolina in 1964 amid Civil Rights struggles. (A 2008 film adaptation starred Dakota Fanning and Queen Latifah.)
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!”
One might think at first this is yet another Civil Rights tale as seen through the eyes of a young white protagonist who learns “life lessons.” But as 14-year old Lily Owens (Elizabeth Teeter) — petulant and self-absorbed while longing for maternal comfort— is told in a fierce and powerfully sung number by Rosaleen (Saycon Sengbloh), the family’s black housekeeper, “It’s Not About You.”
Indeed, in Lynn Nottage’s nuanced script that efficiently distills the novel to its theatrical essence, the shift in focus is now towards this community of black women to whom Lily and Rosaleen journey and where they find refuge — and more.
But here, it’s Rosaleen’s journey of discovery as much as Lily’s. At this spiritual sanctuary where sweetness lives with stings, redemption, growth and discovery eventually come to most all the characters. Note to fans of the book: Nottage makes one major change to one of the characters that strengthens the theme of resiliency and healing.
The plot kicks in with Lily escaping from her abusive father T-Ray (Manoel Felciano) with Rosaleen, who has been jailed and beaten for trying to register to vote.