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.
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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.