Adapted from Sue Monk Kidd’s novel, The Secret Life of Bees is a coming-of-age story that portrays African-American faith and community with affecting emotional sweep. Written by Lynn Nottage (whose play Sweat just opened in the West End) with music by Duncan Sheik and lyrics by Susan Birkenhead, it addresses injustice in the segregated American South in the 1960s.
While some dramatic moments are rushed or too neatly tied-up – there is a gloopy interracial teenage romance subplot – the musical still enchants through delicately rendered performances and powerful song and dance.
White teenager Lily (Elizabeth Teeter) is close with Rosaleen (Saycon Sengbloh), the African-American young woman who works for Lily’s abusive father. After Rosaleen is beaten and jailed for trying to vote, the girls flee, taking shelter with three sisters, August (LaChanze), June (Eisa Davis), and May (Anastacia McCleskey), who knew Lily’s late mother. The sisters’ kindness and guidance helps them heal.
All three sisters are strongly performed – LaChanze exudes serenity, Davis reveals the pain behind her character’s aloofness – while Sengbloh visibly transforms under the sisters’ influence. Teeter’s performance is more surface-skimming however, expressing Lily’s skittishness, but little more.
Director Sam Gold’s minimalist production sets the scene with wisps of culturally specific music and dance. Hand-held wire puppets create the illusion of swirling bees.
Musically it’s powerful too. The style of the songs varies from traditional musical theatre, to soul, gospel and black spirituals. Lyrics reference the history of African American struggle. Through rhythmic movements and hand-drumming, the choreography conjures ancestral associations – giving release to past and present pain.