by Michael Bracken
Some secrets are best kept that way.
A case in point is The Secret Life of Bees at the Atlantic Theater. It’s a musical adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd’s 2001 novel (which became a film in 2008 starring Dakota Fanning and Queen Latifah), with book by Lynn Nottage, music by Duncan Sheik, and lyrics by Sue Birkenhead. But these bees have left their stingers at the cleaners. Whatever edges may have or have not existed in the source material have been sanded down, and all that’s left is sawdust.
Set in South Carolina in 1964, Bees is the story of blonde-haired, lily-white Lily (Elizabeth Teeter), a fourteen-year-old who flees her abusive father, T-Ray (Manoel Felciano) in the company of Rosaleen (Saycon Sengbloh). Rosaleen’s connection to the family of two is not exactly clear, but maid and/or caregiver are probably good guesses. An African American woman, she’s fleeing a beating and arrest she received for trying to register to vote.
The fugitives find their way to the home of three black sisters who run a bee-keeping operation. Named May (Anastacia McCleskey), June (Eisa Davis), and August (LaChanze) – June’s twin, July, passed away – their house is a sort of African-American female collective, inhabited by several other stout black women as well as themselves. May is high-strung and cries on cue. June is a sourpuss, especially when it comes to Neil (Nathaniel Stampley), who, for some inexplicable reason, is courting her. She is also dead set against taking in young white Lily, but she’s overruled by August, who is very much in charge.
August is an earth mother, wise and wonderful, kind and caring. She’s too good to be true, yet LaChanze endows her with so much fiery conviction and gentle dignity that she lights up the stage.
The real star of the show, however, (and of Mimi Lien’s set) is the Black Madonna who’s regularly rolled out for touchy-feely sessions of veneration. Larger than life, she’s more of a ship’s masthead than a statue, and she brings comfort and succor to her supplicants. Lien’s scenic design is otherwise simple, open and almost bare but for chairs where the cast sits when not involved in the action.
Lily earns her keep keeping the bees, which she does at the side of Zachary (Brett Gray), a winning black boy of about her age. Director Sam Gold teases us nicely, as he has the pair of adolescents repeatedly hover face to face. We know eventually they’ll kiss, but he keeps us hanging on until they do. And when they do, trouble follows.
As do the bees. When Zachary and Lily are out with the bees, Gold has three of the women who live with the sisters follow them with wire contraptions that are supposed to represent the insects. Low tech is great, but this is downright kitschy.
Sheik’s music smacks of gospel and blues, but it lacks the energy it needs to carry the show. It’s more on the easy listening side of the tracks. Nottage’s book and Birkenhead’s lyrics are of the same variety: bland. Despite several situations where danger is imminent, there’s almost never a sense of urgency.
For my money, things are a bit askew from the start. It’s 1964, the Civil Rights movement is exploding, and the stage is full of characters of color. Yet we’re supposed to zero in on the only white person we see and lavish our sympathy on her. Of course, Caucasians, like all human beings, had, have, and will continue to have their legitimate problems. But when they’re standing next to a bunch of people who get beaten and arrested just for trying to vote, social context makes their individual struggles seem considerably less compelling.
Photos: Ahron R. Foster
Through Sunday, July 14th, at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater (336 West 20th Street). https://atlantictheater.org/ . 2 hours 20 minutes with one intermission.