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'The Secret Life of Bees' review — a buzzy adaptation isn't as sweet as honey

Read our three-star review of Lynn Nottage's The Secret Life of Bees, starring Eleanor Worthington-Cox, playing at the Almeida Theatre through 27 May.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

There’s a superabundance of talent buzzing about The Secret Life of Bees, the 2019 Off-Broadway musical that arrives at the Almeida Theatre in a separate London production that marks an accomplished UK debut for the Obie Award-winning American director Whitney White. But for all the esteemed names attached, a double Pulitzer winner Lynn Nottage as book writer amongst them, this musical adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd’s 2001 novel never snaps into focus.

It hums pleasantly enough along when what’s really needed is a proper sting. The composer Duncan Sheik previously triumphed at this address with Spring Awakening and American Psycho, but I can’t see this show finding further life without a bit more individuality to exist alongside its often-rousing score. As it is, the enterprise is warm-hearted to a fault but too often feels borrowed from other theatrical sources that delivered the emotional goods more directly.

The best-selling book, filmed in 2008 with Queen Latifah heading the cast, tells of a damaged young white woman, Lily (the sweet-faced Eleanor Worthington-Cox, a onetime Matilda), who flees her own grim family to find refuge with a community of bee-keeping sisters, each of whom is rather quaintly named for a separate month of the year — May, June, August.

Lily’s companion on the run is the beaten-down Rosaleen (Abiona Omonua), the Black family housekeeper who is chafing under the prevailing servitude of the time. It’s 1964 in South Carolina, and Rosaleen would like nothing more basic than to be able to vote. Indeed, arguably the most disturbing aspect of the show is the extent to which the societal fissures on view resonate scarcely less fully a half-century on.

Derided as “the local freak” charged with having killed her mother, Lily must learn to heal. She does so in the company of a Black community who give her the sustenance and courage she never got from her abusive father, T-Ray (Mark Meadows) — which would all be perfectly fine were it not for the puzzling optics to a story that subordinates the Black struggle to the triumph over adversity of a (rather bland) white heroine.

Nottage, somewhat surprisingly, hasn’t found a way to lift the material into something larger and more momentous. The climactic face-off between Lily and T-Ray feels borderline preposterous, and one can’t imagine someone cornered in that situation cowering quite so quickly. It’s therefore left to the score, and the production itself, to work overtime in compensation. That much is accomplished to start with by the appropriately honeyed lighting of Tony and Olivier Award winner Neil Austin, who finds a visual seduction in these hot southern climes.

The score, Susan Birkenhead’s lyrics included, captivates throughout, even if the second-act opener, “Jack Palance,” may strike modern-day audiences as something of a headscratcher. The Oscar-winning actor prompted his own racial discord in 1964 following reports that he had accompanied a Black woman to an Alabama movie theatre. And in the musical, as in the novel, Palance plans a visit with a Black girlfriend to Tilburon, the town to which Lily and Rosaleen have fled.

Sheik’s numbers often sound like book titles. Spring Awakening gave us “The Song of Purple Summer”, and Bees starts with a propulsive opener, “River of Melting Sun”. The fiery “Sign My Name” foregrounds Rosaleen in a plot that is soon taken over by Lily, though the stirring “Trouble on the House” later on gives full-throated pride of place to such stalwart supporting performers as Ava Brennan and Rachel John — both of them Angelicas in Hamilton at different times.

The men include Tarinn Callender’s Neil, who gets a buoyant love song to his “little honeybee” June, just as Noah Thomas’s engaging Zachary, an aspiring lawyer amidst a climate that can’t imagine Black men in such jobs, has designs on Lily: a tricky proposition, at best, in such racially riven times.

What’s missing is more nuance and surprise to a show that wears its platitudes on its sleeve. “What we want and what the world will give us don’t always live in the same dream,” announces Rosaleen in the sort of on-the-nose remark that leaves the audience little room to piece out the material on their own.

The jerkiness of the storytelling can’t forestall a sense that we’ve been down this road before, whether via an anthemic cry to “raise me up” or an uplifting ending whose “I am loved,” spoken by the newly self-affirming Lily, sounds for all the world like Celie’s “I’m here,” from The Color Purple. The Secret Life of Bees has much to admire and applaud, but did I love it? Not quite, though with further tweaking, I very well might.

The Secret Life of Bees is at the Almeida Theatre through 27 May.

Photo credit: The Secret Life Of Bees (Photo by Marc Brenner)

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