Saturday, June 22, 2019

36 (2019-2020): Review: THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES (seen June 21, 2019)

“A Taste of Honey”

There’s a lot of buzz, most of it good, about The Secret Life of Bees, a sweet-as-honey musical realization of Sue Monk Kidd’s bestselling 2002 novel of that name, now at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater. The book was also adapted into a 2008 film starring Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Hudson, Queen Latifah, and Alicia Keys. 
Elizabeth Teeter and Manoel Felciano. Photo: Ahron Foster.
Set in the American South in 1964, during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, it’s a tale of racial injustice, political suffrage, interracial romance, coming of age, the search for maternal love, the power of faith, and the empowerment of black women in defiance of the white patriarchy’s suppression. An all-star creative team weaves these themes together, evocative direction being offered by Sam Gold (Fun Home), a strong script by Pulitzer-winner Lynn Nottage (Sweat), potent lyrics by Susan Birkenhead (Jelly’s Last Jam), and an often-thrilling score by Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening).
LaChanze, Elizabeth Teeter. Photo: Ahron Foster.
The story, occupying a two-act structure that lasts two and a half hours, centers on self-centered (at first), 14-year-old Lily Owens (Elizabeth Teeter, impressive), with dreams of being a writer, from the fictional town of Sayvon, South Carolina. Her father, T. Ray (Mandel Feliciano, very good), blames her for the death of her mother, who died when the much younger Lily picked up a gun that went off. She feels not only great guilt but a wrenching yearning for her mother’s arms. 
Saycon Sengbloh, Elizabeth Teeter. Photo: Ahron Foster.
T. Ray treats her cruelly, punishing even minor infractions by forcing her to kneel on gravel till her knees are raw. She and the family’s snuff-using black housekeeper, Rosaleen (Saycon Sengbloh, sensational), injured by local rednecks (Joe Cassidy, Matt DeAngelis) when she attempts to register to vote, run off together, landing in the town of Tiburon, North Carolina. There, Lily notices honey jars for sale with the image on them of a black Madonna, the same image as on a postcard from her mother.
    Eisa Davis, Vita E. Cleveland, Romelda Teron Benjamin, Saycon Sengbloh, Anastacia McCleskey, Nathaniel Stampley, LaChanze, and Elizabeth Teeter. Photo: Ahron Foster.

This leads her and Rosaleen to an apiary, where they are cared for and given work by the sisters May (Anastacia McCleskey, wonderful), June (Eisa Davis, outstanding), and August Boatright (LaChanze, exceptional). The latter is the well-educated family leader, allowing literary references to abound (Rosaleen is given Jane Eyre to read). These determined, independent black women have created a prosperous beekeeping business despite their racist surroundings. Lily forms a bond with another worker, Zach (Brett Gray, excellent), a black boy with aspirations of becoming a lawyer, but their budding attraction will have to contend with 1964 prejudices.
Anastacica McCleskey, LaChanze. Photo: Ahron Foster.
The sisters, and those associated with them, worship the statue (actually, a ship’s figurehead found floating in a river) of the black Mary that signifies their honey brand, but also symbolizes maternal love. The scenes expressing the awe in which the statue is held (when the darkened stage glitters with candles) are among the most moving in the play. Lily’s mother had a deep connection with the sisters, which will eventually be revealed.
LaChanze, Elizabeth Teeter. Photo: Ahron Foster.
Other dramatic incidents that move the tale toward its conclusion include the outcome of a suit for the affections of the sour June (she can’t get over a jilting at the altar) by the tenacious school principal Neal (Nathaniel Stampley, perfection), who refuses to accept her constant rejections; Zach’s arrest while driving by white cops in a scene similar to the kinds of incidents that continue to roil our society; and T. Ray’s discovery of Lily’s whereabouts.
Brett Gray, Elizabeth Teeter. Photo: Ahron 
Gold’s beautifully staged production uses the increasingly common, simplified approach (as in Fun Home) of an essentially bare stage (design by Mimi Lien), its naked brick walls exposed, and its locales indicated by selected furnishings and props (like the stacks of realistic honey trays) carried off and on with choreographic precision by the actors. Beekeeping smokers play a part as well, providing an organic way of introducing hazy effects as the actors create clouds of smoke with them. Also charming are the bees themselves—golden, trinket-like creatures dangling from wires on rods manipulated by three performers. 
Eisa Davis, Nathanial Stampley. Photo: Ahron Foster.
The actors, even when not in a scene, remain visible, of course, and some—as in the shows of John Doyle—also play musical instruments. The principal musicians are visible along either side wall, one of them, a remarkable hand drum player, Vita E. Cleveland, also participating as part of the acting ensemble. 
 Saycon Sengbloh, Nathaniel Stampley, Eisa Davis, Anastacia McCleskey, & LaChanze. Photo: Ahron Foster.
Jane Cox’s lighting, Dede Ayite’s costumes, and Dan Moses Schreier’s sound design couldn’t be better blended. Chris Walker’s choreographic arrangements are often stunning in how honestly they express the characters’ feelings through movement, especially during the rapturous worship scenes. 
LaChanze, Jai’Len Christine Li Josey, Vita E. Cleveland, Elizabeth Teeter, Romelda Teron Benjamin. Photo: Ahron Foster.
The Secret Life of Bees provides a musically fulfilling theatre experience supported by a compelling, straightforward narrative that includes parental abuse, religious ecstasy, sexual awakening, romantic fulfillment, and virulent prejudice, including police brutality. It sticks fairly close to the novel but offers a few variations, like the fate of May, or the circumstances of Zach’s arrest. 
Eisa Davis, Jai’Len Christine Li Josey, Vita E. Cleveland, LaChanze, Anastacia McCleskey, Nathaniel Stampley, Romelda Teron Benjamin, Saycon Sengbloh. Photo: Ahron Foster.
Sheik’s music, exceptionally well played and orchestrated, runs from jazz to blues to gospel to country, providing a succession of effective, affecting songs for the remarkably big-voiced, perfectly matched company.

Each actor brings conviction and depth to their roles. The book contains many things familiar from multiple other depictions of the Civil Rights years, and it sometimes teeters on the sentimental. Nonetheless, its expert presentation makes it all seem newly minted. The Secret Life of Bees has plenty of sting in its tail but it soothes as well with an unforgettable taste of honey. 
Linda Gross Theater/Atlantic Theater Company
336 W. 20th St., NYC
Through July 21