I have not read Sue Monk Kidd’s bestselling novel The Secret Life of Bees, nor seen the (less successful) 2008 movie, so I came to the new off-Broadway musical based on her story without any preconceptions. I also came fresh from seeing Fairview, Jackie Sibblies Drury’s much acclaimed, stylistically adventurous, aggressively woke exploration of racial attitudes, now being revived in Brooklyn by the Theater for a New Audience. So I was perhaps more receptive than usual to a show that deals with race in a more old-fashioned, companionable (not to mention comprehensible) way. The Secret Life of Bees won me over instantly.
The story takes place in rural South Carolina in 1964, and revolves around Lily, a motherless 14-year-old living with her emotionally abusive father, who runs away from home with her beloved black caretaker, who has had a violent encounter with some local racists. The pair wind up in a neighboring town, where they are taken in by a household of beekeeping sisters, who offer spiritual balm, feminist inspiration, and some secrets behind the death of Lily’s mother. So the show covers a lot of ground: coming-of-age memoir, women’s-empowerment parable, and a story of political awakening in the Civil Rights-era South.
Lynn Nottage’s intelligent script, I suspect, has not captured all the nuances of the novel, and the storytelling, under Sam Gold’s quiet direction, does get a little draggy and unfocused at times. But it’s hard not to be seduced by this warm-hearted show, with its optimistic spirit and pleasing medley of characters that (mostly) steer clear of stereotype. The excellent cast is headed by the charismatic Broadway singer LaChanze, as the eldest sister of the beekeeping clan, and Elizabeth Teeter, an unusually natural and winning stage teen, as Lily,. What pulls it all together is the irresistible score by Duncan Sheik (with lyrics by Susan Birkenhead), an eclectic mix of jazz, blues, gospel, bluegrass and Rent-style Broadway rock, which nevertheless sounds cohesive and perfectly pitched to the time and place.
The show is bound to call up comparisons to that other story of a white girl’s coming of age in the Civil Rights-era South, To Kill a Mockingbird. But The Secret Life of Bees actually works better on stage than Aaron Sorkin’s current hit Broadway adaptation of the Harper Lee novel. Plus, at a time when more and more small-scale shows are being plucked from off-Broadway and turned into Broadway hits, I would argue that The Secret Life of Bees has more to offer a mainstream audience than, say, The Band’s Visit. A very mixed review from the New York Times won’t help its prospects, but I think the show is a crowd pleaser. It certainly pleased me.
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