Atlantic Theater Company
Linda Gross Theater
336 West 20th St. between Eighth & Ninth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through July 21, $106.50-$126.50
In a readers guide interview for her 2001 novel The Secret Life of Bees, author Sue Monk Kidd explains, “I began my bee education by reading lots of books. There’s a mystique about bees, a kind of spell they weave over you, and I fell completely under it. I read bee lore and legend that went back to ancient times. I discovered bees were considered a symbol of the soul, of death and rebirth. I will never forget coming upon medieval references which associated the Virgin Mary with the queen bee. I’d been thinking of her as the queen bee of my little hive of women in the pink house, thinking that was very original, and they’d already come up with that five hundred years ago!”
The Virgin Mary / queen bee symbolism lies at the heart of the story, which was made into a 2008 film by Gina Prince-Bythewood starring Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Hudson, Queen Latifah, Alicia Keys, and Sophie Okonedo and has now been turned into a skillfully rendered musical continuing at the Atlantic through July 21. It’s the summer of 1964 in South Carolina, and twenty-two-year-old black maid Rosaleen (Tony nominee Saycon Sengbloh) is determined to exercise her brand-new right to vote. Fourteen-year-old white girl Lily (Elizabeth Teeter) insists on accompanying her. Rosaleen has been helping take care of Lily and her father, T-Ray (Chris Stack), ever since the tragic loss of Lily’s mother. Rosaleen gets attacked by two white racists and is arrested. Lily, after another fight with the angry T-Ray, goes on the run with Rosaleen, spurred by a postcard in her mother’s things of a black Madonna statue in Tiburon. “Not a damn thing in this town / I’m gonna miss / Wherever I’m goin’ / It’s gotta be better than this,” Lily and Rosaleen sing.
When they get to Tiburon, they find a pink house where a group of women make Black Madonna Honey and, as the Daughters of Mary, worship a statue of the black virgin; while August Boatwright (Tony winner LaChanze) immediately wants to take Lily and Rosaleen in, June (Obie winner Eisa Davis) is not so sure, and May (Anastacia McCleskey) is somewhere in between, stuck in mourning for July. Lily is soon working with Zachary (Brett Gray), a black teenager, and learning some life lessons, but T-Ray is trying to track her down — and the horrors of racism await around nearly every corner.
Directed by Tony winner Sam Gold (Fun Home, A Doll’s House, Part 2) and featuring music by Tony and Grammy winner Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening, Alice by Heart) — who was raised in South Carolina — lyrics by two-time Tony nominee and Drama Desk winner Susan Birkenhead (Jelly’s Last Jam, Working), and a book by two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage (Sweat, Ruined), The Secret Life of Bees is a poignant, hard-hitting tale that feels all too real as voter suppression of people of color is still a major issue in America. The story loses its way near the end as it gets bogged down in religious fervor and treacly melodrama, but the majority of the show is smart and entertaining; especially notable is the creative way the bees flock around Lily. Mimi Lien’s homey set includes a nine-piece band on the periphery of the stage playing a mix of country, folk, blues, pop, and R&B, led by pianist, music director, and conductor Jason Hart and percussionist and associate music director Benjamin Rahuala.
LaChanze (The Color Purple, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical) is absolutely lovely as August, a strong woman asserting her power, while Sengbloh (Eclipsed, In the Blood) is warm and becoming as Rosaleen, and Teeter (The Crucible, The Hard Problem) is impressive as Lily, a tough kid making grown-up decisions. The cast also includes Romelda Teron Benjamin as Queenie, Vita E. Cleveland as Violet, and Jai’Len Christine Li Josey as Sugar Girl, three Daughters of Mary who serve as a kind of Greek chorus, and Nathaniel Stampley as Neil, a principal who has his heart set on marrying the cold and distant June. The musical might be set fifty-five years ago, but it feels all too real given the racial, economic, and political divides that are tearing this country apart, buzzing around us like so many angry hornets, delivering poisonous stings instead of sweet honey.
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