“The Secret Life of Bees” runs through July 14 at the Linda Gross Theater. 336 W. 20th St., atlantictheater.org.
While all of our attention has been heavily focused on the Tony Awards in recent weeks, Off-Broadway has shifted into full gear when it comes to new musicals.
At least one of them, "The Secret Life of Bees," looks like it could be a major contender at next year’s Tony Awards, assuming it makes a deserved transfer to Broadway.
"Bees," which just officially opened at the Atlantic Theater Company, is a beautiful and captivating adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd’s 2001 coming-of-age novel.
Also known for its 2008 film version (which starred Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Hudson, Queen Latifah and Alicia Keys), “The Secret Life of Bees” observes Lily, an emotionally-scarred teenage girl in 1960s South Carolina, who embarks on a journey with her family’s black housekeeper to learn more about her deceased mother. This leads them to a beekeeping company that is run by three black sisters and known for using a statute of the Black Madonna as its logo.
The story does not shy away from depictions of graphic violence, racism and major depression. In a disturbing early scene, Lily’s abusive father forces her to painfully kneel upon a pile of sharp grits. As demonstrated by her bruised knees, Lily is regularly tortured this way. Two young black characters are both badly beaten and then placed in police custody. And as the characters explain, Lily’s mother died in a freak accident involving a mishandled gun.
The success of this adaptation lies in its grade-A creative team, including director Sam Gold (“Fun Home”), Pulitzer-winning playwright Lynn Nottage (“Sweat”), composer Duncan Sheik (“Spring Awakening”) and lyricist Susan Birkenhead (“Jelly’s Last Jam”).
Unlike so many other musicals that are adapted without inspiration or invention, “The Secret Life of Bees” is intently focused around having its characters open up and reveal themselves in songs and dialogue. Even if some of the plotting is choppy, the score and book demonstrate a superb level of craftsmanship, sensitivity to character and dramatic integration.
Gold’s production takes the form of direct storytelling, with the cast and band (including an outstanding horn section) surrounding the ends of the stage in a semicircular fashion and watching as the story unfolds. The three beekeeper sisters (played by Eisa Davis, LaChanze and Anastacia McCleskey) appear to be leading the performance. And in a simple but effective bit of stagecraft, they wave around wands to represent the presence of the bees.
Elizabeth Teeter (whose Broadway credits include “Mary Poppins” and “The Crucible”) gives an impressive and sympathetic performance in which she conveys Lily’s burdened and shaken-up nature. LaChanze (Tony winner for “The Color Purple”) takes on a majestic quality during her high-powered rendition of the title song.
Sheik’s music (which utilizes elements of church gospel and southern rock) is his best since “Spring Awakening,” which debuted exactly 13 years ago at the same Off-Broadway theater.