Sue Monk Kidd knew how to pile on the abuse in her 2001 best-seller, “The Secret Life of Bees.” It’s not enough that the young heroine of Kidd’s novel feels abandoned by her dead mother. Lily must also feel responsible for her mother’s death because she accidentally shot her one night when Mom and Dad were fighting. And it’s not enough that the racist father continues to berate Lily a decade after that “accident.” He must also make her kneel in a pile of hard, uncooked grits that he routinely pours on the kitchen floor.
We get to look at Lily’s bloody kneecaps for the first hour of “The Secret Life of Bees,” the new musical based on Kidd’s novel that opened Thursday at Off Broadway’s Atlantic Theater Company. As it turns out, those reddened limbs are the only outrage/horror/crime inflicted on this 14-year-old that isn’t quickly resolved in a matter of minutes.
Lynn Nottage wrote the book for the new “Bees” musical, and like Kidd before her, she’s a master of quick resolutions. No sooner is the black housekeeper Rosaleen (Saycon Sengbloh) beaten up and thrown in jail than little Lily (Elizabeth Teeter) springs into action to single-handedly plot her escape. No sooner are Lily and Rosaleen thirsty and hungry on the road than they’re taken in by the local beekeeper August (LaChanze), who lives in a lovely pink mansion with her two sisters, the cranky June (Eisa Davis) and the emotionally challenged May (Anastacia McCleskey). No sooner is Lily’s young black boyfriend Zachary (Brett Gray) beaten up and thrown in jail than he’s released. And like the novel and its 2008 screen adaptation, the “Bees” musical ends happily with a racist white man pitted against a black woman in a way that defies both the place, South Carolina, and the year, 1964.
The only problem that can’t be resolved is the one Kidd didn’t make up: fierce white resistance to black voter registration.
Nottage does spare us one trauma from the novel and the 2008 movie adaptation. The sister May no longer opts to commit suicide, sparing us a funeral showstopper. Nottage unfortunately leaves intact the courtship of June and overly committed suitor Neil (Nathaniel Stampley), who pursues her with a determination bordering on sexual harassment. June eventually says yes to Neil’s umpteenth marriage proposal, but there’s no joy in her acceptance. It’s more like she’s trying to shut the guy up. Or is this a pre-#MeToo moment, because so many women back in the 1960s really meant yes when they repeatedly said no?
“Bees,” the musical, needs to keep the heartaches and the horrors coming even faster than the novel and the movie did. How else can you squeeze 17 songs, plus four reprises, into two hours and 20 minutes?
That score is eclectic to the extreme. In the first act, composer Duncan Sheik and lyricist Susan Birkenhead brighten up this story about extreme racism with a love song to a car. This comes when Zachary tells Lily that he wants to be a lawyer and she asks why he doesn’t pursue a career in football instead. Gray sings “Fifty-Five Fairlane” and ends it by doing awesome splits (choreography by Chris Walker). Given the choice between writing a song about what’s really on the character’s mind — going to Harvard Law or Lily’s racist snub — Sheik and Birkenhead instead have him audition for John Travolta’s role in “Grease.”
Then there’s the 11 o’clock number, “Marry Me,” given to Neil, the stalker. It sounds like something from another 1970s musical, “They’re Playing Our Song.” The music provides a nice Marvin Hamlisch bounce, while the lyrics get stuck attempting to normalize Neil’s creepy serial behavior: “When pride is left in tatters/ knowing love/ is all that matters.”
Mixed in with these vanilla melodies are the musical’s big ensemble numbers that get to the core of black life in the 1960s. They take place whenever August, her sisters and female friends gather to worship a black Madonna statue that doubles as the logo for this matriarch’s brand of honey. It’s difficult to tell what these women are chanting and stomping about — August’s business acumen or their self-styled religion — but these song-and-dance numbers gave me a whole new appreciation for religions that forbid images of their deity.
Part of this unique religious ritual in “Bees” features the women pouring honey over their life-size Madonna. The pouring of honey is enacted only once in the show, near the end, but it’s a sticky spectacle — and the statue continues to drip bee juice even when rolled upstage out of the spotlight, stealing focus from several momentous events in the life of Lily and friends.
Sheik compensates with some gorgeously colored underscoring for the lessons August teaches Lily on how to care for bees. LaChanze is equally wonderful at communicating the magic of these overly feared, endangered insects. And to her credit, Teeter presents a far edgier Lily than Dakota Fanning’s adorable wimp in the movie. Best of all, Sheik and Birkenhead give Lily and Zachary a shimmering duet, “What Do You Love?” that stands in quiet yet stark contrast to the oversell of the show’s other songs. The performers often appear to be in competition to see who can sing loudest, even though all their voices are blended into the same blaring audio mush (sound design by Dan Moses Schreier).
“Fifty-Five Fairlane” and “Marry Me” are stylistically out of place in such an earnest musical, but at least those tunes display a raw eagerness to entertain. “What’s Never Been,” on the other hand, is a civil-rights anthem that patronizes as it preaches, “It’s a war we can win/ if you and I/ just keep stirring the pot/ we’re gonna keep/ gettin’ under their skin.”
Sam Gold’s direction of “Fun Home” at the Public Theater, and then on Broadway, turned minimalism into a theatrically thrilling choice. Here, Gold’s staging for “Bees” is simultaneously bare and messy. Only that dripping Madonna on Mimi Lien’s unit set stands out among the clutter of musicians, lined up along the theater’s three brick walls, and the accumulation of more candles than you’d find in aisle 3 at Bed, Bath & Beyond.