You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Off Broadway Review: ‘The Secret Life of Bees’

A glorious musical of faith, hope and honey — this show has buzz to it.

Romelda Teron Benjamin, Joe Cassidy, Vita E. Cleveland, Eisa Davis, Matt DeAngelis, Manoel Felciano, Brett Gray, Jai'Len Josey, LaChanze, Anastacia McCleskey, Saycon Sengbloh, Nathaniel Stampley, Elizabeth Teeter.

2 hours 15 minutes

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.

Together they flee their town and their dire fates. They are guided by the picture of a black madonna that Lily’s dead mother left behind for her, with the name of another South Carolina town scrawled on its back. Lily feels compelled to head there to find answers about her troubling past.

The picture is the label of a successful honey farm, run by a trio of entrepreneuring black sisters, led by the open-hearted August (LaChanze, with a serene glow and a voice of amazing grace.)

There’s also stern, elegant, cello-playing June (Eisa Davis), a school teacher who is regularly wooed by the smitten, resilient principal (Nathanial Stampley). Then there’s  May (Anastacia McCleskey), so empathetic to the pain of life around her that she regularly seeks comfort from a life-sized wooden statue of a black madonna. Also helping out on the honey farm is black, college-bound teenager Zach (Brett Gray, terrific) who strikes a special and fraught friendship with Lily.

In Mimi Lien’s spare, intimate set, the focus is on the simplicity of storytelling and the rituals of faith — and of bee-keeping. AchesonWalsh Studios provide the wands of bees and Dan Moses Schreier’s sound design also keeps things humming.

Staged by director Sam Gold and choreographer Chris Walker with respect for the power of folklore, Southern Gothic and pure theater, the richness here is in the details of character, performances and music. They all color a larger picture of feminine strength, belonging and love. It makes for a richly rewarding hive — and show — that’s golden ambrosia.

Popular on Variety

Off Broadway Review: 'The Secret Life of Bees'

Atlantic Theater Company; 193 seats: $95 top. Opened June 13, 2019. Reviewed June 7. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.

Production: An Atlantic Theater Company presentation of a musical in two acts with music by Duncan Sheik; lyrics by Susan Birkenhead; book by Lynn Nottage based on the novel by Sue Monk Kidd.

Creative: Directed by Sam Gold; choreography, Chris Walker;  sets, Mimi Lien; costumes, Dede Ayite; lighting, Jane Cox; sound,  Dan Moses Schreier; puppetry, AchesonWalsh Studios; musical direction, Jason Hart; music contraction by Antoine Silverman; orchestrations, Duncan Sheik and John Clancy; incidental music orchestrations, Duncan Sheik; production stage manager, Samantha Watson.

Cast: Romelda Teron Benjamin, Joe Cassidy, Vita E. Cleveland, Eisa Davis, Matt DeAngelis, Manoel Felciano, Brett Gray, Jai'Len Josey, LaChanze, Anastacia McCleskey, Saycon Sengbloh, Nathaniel Stampley, Elizabeth Teeter.

More Legit

  • David-Alan-Grier-Blair-Underwood

    David Alan Grier and Blair Underwood to Star in 'A Soldier's Play' on Broadway

    David Alan Grier and Blair Underwood will star in a Broadway production of Pulitzer-Prize winning drama “A Soldier’s Play.” The play, written by Charles Fuller, is set in 1944 and follows a murder mystery centered around the death of black Sergeant Vernon C. Waters (played by Grier) who is found on a Louisiana army base. [...]

  • The Inheritance review

    'The Inheritance' Announces Broadway Cast

    After an Olivier-winning run in London, “The Inheritance” is gearing up for its Broadway debut. The two-part epic has set the cast for its transfer from the West End to the Great White Way. John Benjamin Hickey, Paul Hilton, Samuel H. Levine, Andrew Burnap and Kyle Soller are among the cast members reprising their roles [...]

  • Patrick Page, Amber Grey, Eva Noblezada,

    'Hadestown' Announces 2020 National Tour

    ‘Hadestown’, the eight-time Tony award winning Broadway musical, is set for a national tour in 2020. The show will stop in more than 30 cities including Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New Orleans, and more. The musical is a stage adaptation of the Greek myths of Orpheus and Eurydice and King Hades and his wife [...]

  • Jake Gyllenhaal

    Listen: Why Jake Gyllenhaal Is His 'Best Self' in the Theater

    Looking for the best possible version of Jake Gyllenhaal? You’ll find it onstage, according to the actor himself. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “I am my best self when I’m working in the theater,” Gyllenhaal said on the latest episode Stagecraft, Variety’s theater podcast, on which he appeared with Carrie Cracknell, the director of [...]

  • Photo: Jeremy Daniel

    'The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical' Gets Broadway Run

    “The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical” is Broadway bound. The musical adaptation of the franchise about a teenager who discovers he’s the son of Poseidon hits the Great White Way on Sept. 20 ahead of an Oct. 16 opening night. It comes on the heels of an extensive, nationwide tour that took the show [...]

  • Tom Sturridge Jake Gyllenhaal

    Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge Celebrate 'Sea Wall/A Life' With Star-Studded Opening Night

    A star-studded audience looked on as Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge returned to the stage for their double monologue performance in “Sea Wall/A Life.” Theater-goers and celebs including Anne Hathaway, Tom Hiddleston and John Mulaney gathered in Manhattan’s Hudson Theatre for opening night, celebrating a show tackling grief, birth and death through the eyes of [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content