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

  • The Sound Inside review

    Broadway Review: 'The Sound Inside' Starring Mary-Louise Parker

    Mary-Louise Parker will take your breath away with her deeply felt and sensitively drawn portrait of a tenured Yale professor who treasures great literature, but has made no room in her life for someone to share that love with. The other thesp in this two-hander is Will Hochman, endearing in the supportive role of a [...]

  • Little Shop of Horrors review

    Off Broadway Review: 'Little Shop of Horrors'

    With its strains of kitschy doo-wop and its sci-fi B-movie inspirations, the quaint 1982 musical “Little Shop of Horrors” hardly seems a thing of modern-day revivalism, even despite its touches of S&M. Yet this year alone, not only is there an Off Broadway production of the blackly comic “Little Shop” featuring Jonathan Groff of Netflix’s [...]

  • The Lightning Thief review musical

    Broadway Review: 'The Lightning Thief,' The Musical

    “It’s a lot to take in right now,” says Percy Jackson, the teen hero of “The Lightning Thief,” the kid-centric fantasy musical (based on the popular Y.A. novel) that’s now on Broadway after touring the country and playing an Off Broadway run. You could say that’s a bit of an understatement from contemporary teen Percy [...]

  • The Rose Tattoo review

    Broadway Review: 'The Rose Tattoo' Starring Marisa Tomei

    “The Rose Tattoo” is what happens when a poet writes a comedy — something strange, but kind of lovely. The same might be said of director Trip Cullman’s production: Strange, if not exactly lovely. Even Marisa Tomei, so physically delicate and expressively refined, seems an odd choice to play the lusty and passionate protagonist, Serafina [...]

  • Obit-Roy-B

    Former NATO President Roy B. White Dies at 93

    Roy B. White, former president and chairman of the National Association of Theater Owners, died of natural causes Oct. 11 in Naples, Fla. He was 93. White ran the 100-screen independent theater circuit, Mid–States Theaters Inc. In addition to his career, he did extensive work on behalf of charities and non-profits. He was vice president [...]

  • Soft Power review

    Off Broadway Review: 'Soft Power'

    The “culture-clash musical” is a familiar template, in which a white American protagonist — waving the flag of individuality, optimism and freedom — trumps and tramps over the complexities of that which is foreign, challenging or “other.” David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori’s “Soft Power,” the new “play with a musical” at Off Broadway’s Public [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content