BWW Review: Lynn Nottage, Duncan Sheik and Susan Birkenhead's Beautiful and Thrilling THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES
A young African-American woman living in 1964 rural South Carolina is interrupted on her way to a voter registration rally by a pair of white men who not only rough her up until she's on the ground and bloody, but convince a police officer that it was her fault.
"Whatcha got to say?," one of them taunts as she's yanked to her feet.
"I'm gonna go vote," she sings with brave determination.
It's the first of many absolutely thrilling moments in Lynn Nottage (book), Duncan Sheik (music) and Susan Birkenhead's (lyrics) beautifully realized adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd's 2001 novel The Secret Life of Bees.
A coming of age story involving a group of women who use their own brand of spiritualism and community to shield themselves from the hatred beyond their enclave, director Sam Gold's presentational staging, enhanced by Chris Walker's choreography, emphasizes storytelling rituals and abstract stagecraft.
Initially, the story is centered on 14-year-old Lily Owens (wonderfully understated Elizabeth Teeter), whose abusive father T-Ray (Manoel Felciano) reinforces in her a belief that she was responsible for the accident that killed her mother.
"A pretty dress ain't gonna stop people from whispering about ya," he warns when he sees her dressed up to go to a fair. "Everybody in this town know whatcha done."
Her bloody knees are the result of her father's cruel form of punishment, having her kneel to pray on a floor cover with hard grits.
The only source of kindness in Lily's life is her maid, Rosaleen (warm and engaging Saycon Sengbloh, who emits soaring vocals), the young woman whose attempt to register to vote left her arrested and hospitalized.
Lily helps her escape and the two of them travel to Tiburon, South Carolina, the location written on a mysterious picture of a Black Madonna that belonged to her mother.
Once in Tiburon, they discover the picture is the honey jar label used by a local bee farm run by three sisters. August (LaChanze, elegant and divine) appears to be the spiritual leader of the land. Stern and reserved June (Eisa Davis) is a schoolteacher who lets out her emotions by playing the cello and regularly turns down marriage proposals from her principal (charming Nathanial Stampley). May (Anastacia McCleskey) carries grief from the death of her twin, April, and finds comfort in the wooden Black Madonna statue mounted in the parlor.
"Everybody needs to see God in their own image," observes August.
August allows them to stay as long as they earn their keep, with Rosaleen helping around the house and Lily learning how to gather nectar from the bees.
"Send them love," August advises as the way to keep from getting stung. "Every living creature responds to love."
Lily also develops a friendship with teenager Zach (dynamic Brett Gray), earning money for college at the bee farm.
The notion of cultured and educated black women living independently is something new to both Lily and Rosaleen and their discovery of the sisters' lifestyle explores themes of the power of spiritual bonding and community.
The contrasting character types involved inspire Sheik to compose his best theatre score to date, utilizing gospel, 60s funk, folk and old-school jazz. The company sounds gorgeous performing Hart's vocal arrangements.
There are some stumbles in the second act; places where the actions of characters don't seem fully motivated and a secondary player winds up with a solo in the next-to-closing spot, but these are minor setbacks in a beautiful and joyful theatre piece. Expect some major buzz about this one.