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Theatre in Review: The Secret Life of Bees (Atlantic Theater Company)

Eisa Davis, Vita E. Cleveland, Romelda Teron Benjamin, Saycon Sengbloh, Anastacia McClesky, Nathaniel Stampley, LaChanze, Elizabeth Teeter. Photo. Ahron R. Foster.

Early in the second act of The Secret Life of Bees, one suddenly notices what one has been missing all along. Lily, an adolescent runaway, and Zachary, her young friend -- they both work for August, a beekeeper -- take part in "What Do You Love?," a gentle, tentative exchange of preferences in life: the color red, the smell of old books, the guitar sounds of Muddy Waters. The number tantalizes because of its obvious subtext; throughout it, they edge closer and closer to admitting a mutual attraction that is unwise, even dangerous, because she is white, he is black, and it is South Carolina in the summer of 1964. Duncan Sheik's melody is beguiling, set to a lightly percussive rhythm suggestive of passion that won't be ignored, and Susan Birkenhead's lyrics are in the best tradition of musical-theatre songwriting: Without directly saying so, you learn exactly how much Lily and Zachary feel for each other, and how impossible they understand their affection to be.

In other words, the number delivers drama, a quality oddly absent from a musical that is both rich with incident and surprisingly inert. With its coming-of-age plot marked by powerful female friendships, a celebratory approach to the endurance of black women, and a supporting cast of abusive male villains, one imagines that everyone involved hoped to deliver another emotional haymaker along the lines of The Color Purple. But Sue Monk Kidd's mega-best-selling novel seemingly resists adaptation; certainly, the eminent Lynn Nottage, author of the musical's book, hasn't been able to wrest a clear and emotionally binding narrative from it. It proceeds in fits and starts, never delivering the promised emotional knockout punch.

Kidd's novel is, arguably, a too-slick piece of writing, a feminist fairy tale heavy with uplift and a tendency to keep the ugly details of Southern racism in the background lest they prove too disturbing. Nottage seems determined to avoid the book's sentimental pitfalls, but in scrubbing out some of its too-quaint details, she inadvertently ends up diluting it. Lily is a lost child, burdened with the stigma of -- at age four -- killing her mother, an episode she has largely blocked out. (Adding to her pain, she is told that her mother had, previously, willfully abandoned her, thus giving Lily a motive for her act.) Her Simon Legree-like father, T-Ray, treats her like a criminal, forcing her to kneel on uncooked rice, a form of torture that leaves her knees permanently bloodstained. Her only source of affection is Rosaleen, the family retainer.

When Rosaleen, who is black, tries to register to vote, she is humiliated by a gang of white bigots; fighting back -- emptying her "snuff bottle," into which she spits, onto their shoes -- she ends up in hospital. Lily, sick of her loveless existence, breaks Rosaleen out, and together they hit the road, following the only clue they have to Lily's mother's past: a label, for an artisanal maker of honey, dominated by an image of a black Madonna. It leads them to three sisters: August, who runs a prosperous honey-making operation; June, a cantankerous schoolteacher and professional spinster; and the emotionally fragile May, who keeps house for them. August appears to buy Lily's concocted orphan narrative, but has her own reasons for letting her stay; as June, who is instantly hostile to Lily, notes, it's risky business for a houseful of black women to host a young white girl.

Whatever the falsities at the book's heart -- it never really wonders why the sisters enjoy such a placid, almost paradisical existence even as the civil rights movement rumbles in the distance -- it is an assured piece of storytelling. Nottage messes with it in ways that prove unhelpful: The terms of Lily's mother's death are so hazily presented that, for all one knows, she died in childbirth. (A number titled "The Girl Who Killed Her Mother" clears up nothing, leaving one unclear why Lily feels so guilty.) The sequence in which Lily stages Rosaleen's escape is, in the book, an exercise in suspense, involving a clever bit of subterfuge; onstage, Lily enters, as if she were the head nurse, and slips her out with no resistance. On a larger scale, Nottage hasn't addressed the book's biggest weakness: Having arrived in the town of Tiburon, home of August and her sisters, Lily repeatedly delays asking about their connection to her mother -- information that she is putatively desperate to know -- for no discernible reason. (The book is, essentially, two hundred pages of delaying tactics; without them, there would be no story.) I lost count of the number of times that August -- who guesses the mother-daughter connection right away -- delivers a variation of "If you ever need an ear, I'm here."

Perhaps rightly worried about The Secret Life of Bees becoming the story of a young white girl's salvation thanks to a houseful of magical negroes, Nottage de-emphasizes Lily, beefing up some of the supporting characters. This has the unwanted effect of slackening the central narrative, turning it into a series of loosely connected supporting turns. It's typical that the August-June duet, "Trouble on the House," explains June's anger at Lily, then drops it without further discussion. The subplot focusing on June and the school principal whose marriage proposals she routinely rejects is stock comedy stuff out of a run-of-the-mill 1950s musical; it makes no sense to give them their big number ("Marry Me") in the eleven o'clock slot, when the larger story should be wrapping up. Often, an already-pastel-tinted story is made softer: With the elimination of May's suicide, which sets up the book's climax, the character has a significantly diminished role to play.

The musical also struggles to explain the sisters' religious practice, a kind of Marian cult revolving around a wooden statue of the Blessed Virgin that has a complicated history reaching back into the antebellum era. This unusual syncretic belief, blending elements of Roman Catholicism with traditional Pentecostal forms of worship and perhaps a touch of animism, is vividly described in the book; here, it sets up a first-act finale, "Our Lady of Chains," which, as staged by Chris Walker, doesn't really convey the sustaining qualities of this unique form of folk piety.

Sam Gold's production is marked by an uncertainty of approach, beginning with the production design. Mimi Lien's set, an essentially bare stage with musicians placed along the perimeter and candles in every nook, is -- with the exception of that gorgeous Marian statue -- oddly anonymous. In a show about a set in a specific time and place, with the social order in turmoil -- radio broadcasts deliver regular bulletins about civil unrest -- the action unfolds in a tasteful void. (We are told that the sisters live in a house painted Pepto-Bismol pink, a color absent from the set's earth-tone palette.) It's telling that we never see the label with the Madonna image that sets the plot in motion; the show would likely have benefited from having a projection designer to provide such crucial visual information. In contrast, Dede Ayite's marvelously detailed costumes work wonders in terms of delineating the characters. Jane Cox's lighting is a generally attractive evocation of Southern sunlight with a pinkish undertone, and Dan Moses Schreier's sound design does a solid job of keeping the score intelligible in the Atlantic's auditorium, an acoustically unforgiving space.

Sheik's score has its lively and affecting moments but, without a strong narrative to support, the songs are occupied with side matters and/or lack specificity. (Numbers like "River of Melting Sun," the opener, and "Tak A Hol A My Soul," an expression of religious ecstasy, are founded on surprisingly generic lyrics; other songs come to an abrupt halt before reaching anything like a satisfying conclusion.) Among the more likable items are "Sign My Name," Rosaleen's ode to voter registration; "Fifty-Five Fairlane," Zachary's tribute to the car that is his most prized possession; and "What's Never Been," in which Lily and Zachary vow to make the world safe for their love.

The cast is loaded with the kind of pros who always deliver. The ever-welcome LaChanze brings a real authority to August, even if her big number (the title tune) is a woozy tribute to nature's healing powers; if she can't rescue the character from being a one-dimensional fount of wisdom, blame the libretto, not the actress. The same goes for Eisa Davis, who is far too good for June's repertoire of cranky remarks and unmotivated changes of heart. Elizabeth Teeter invests Lily with a true vulnerability, especially when partnering with Brett Gray, a real find as Zachary. Manoel Felciano is suitably sullen and menacing as T-Ray, a character who is far more complex (and pitiable) in the book; Anastacia McCleskey charms in the diminished role of May; and Saycon Sengbloh delivers Rosaleen's lines with an appropriate shot of vinegar while singing gorgeously.

The novel builds to a Dickensian climax in which all is revealed, including August's connection to Lily's mother and the truth about the latter's death; it also features a barn-burning facedown with T-Ray. Onstage, the latter confrontation is a nonstarter, resolved far too quickly and easily, a peck of trouble dispelled with a wave of the hand. It's a typical moment in a feel-good entertainment that, too often, doesn't fully earn its feelings. --David Barbour

(26 June 2019)

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