With the illustrious team behind “The Secret Lives of Bees” — Lynn Nottage’s book and Duncan Sheik’s music — we can expect a hit. Add Susan Birkenhead’s resounding lyrics, and Sam Gold’s seamless direction, and you have a wonderous musical, delivering a sense of revivalism. We join them in keeping the faith.
Like “Spring Awakening,” Duncan Sheik’s first musical theater piece, which also premiered at the Atlantic Theater, this is a groundbreaking work. Musically, the influences stem from African American spirituals, the blues, and folk songs. Similarly, the narrative is nontraditional, and constructed in improvisational fashion.
The show opens on the entire troupe of actors that lead us into their story. With an on-stage orchestra performing a wide range of strings and brass, the spirit of song carries the tale.
Designed by Mimi Lien, the set is an open space that morphs through the performance from Lilly’s childhood home, into the street, a beekeeper’s home, a place for prayer, to a car, carrying the ongoing life of the characters. Simple activities from shucking peas, knitting, and praying, to taking care of bees, tell us where the action is set.
Based on the novel by Sue Monk Kidd, also made into a popular film starring Dakota Fanning and Queen Latifah, the narrative is set against racial strife in South Carolina of the ‘60s. In fact, the precipitous event occurs early in Act I. Rosaleen, played with absolute determination by Saycon Sengbloh, gets violently beaten while going to vote.
Rather than a reenactment of racial strife, the musical focuses on 14-year-old Lilly (Elizabeth Teeter), “white as a Lilly,” and her best friend, the family housekeeper Rosaleen. Together they escape the violence to which they are each subjected. Ultimately, their exodus leads them on the path to their own redemption.
In Lilly’s case, her abuser is her father, T-Ray, played by a wickedly convincing Manoel Felciano. Having guilted his daughter, now age 14, with the death of her mother, claiming that she killed her when she was just four years old, Lilly lives under the shroud of his contempt and the neighbors’ gossip. With a handful of mementoes her mother left behind, including a postcard of a black madonna with the name of another small South Carolina town written on the back, Lilly leads herself and Rosaleen to the home of the Boatwright sisters. To their good fortune, the Boatwrights, the beekeepers, take them in, and eventually help Lilly understand what happened to her mother.
Building their bee business from the kitchen table, May (Anastasia Mccleskey), June (Elsa Davis), and August (LaChanze) express the virtues of education, commitment, and most important, sisterhood. With her mellifluous voice, LaChanze sings, “Bee after bee beside his brother lifted by the wings of one another.” It’s a metaphor for their relationship.
Still, it’s the singing that lifts this production from its on-stage immediacy to the mythic. As Lilly, Tetter’s voice is earthy and personal, in a style that brings to mind Judy Collins.
Among the beekeepers, Elsa Davis, as the school teacher who refuses the advances of her suitor, the school principal, turns from sourpuss to golden honey. As her persistent suitor — he proposes every other week — Nathanial Stampley renders the role awkwardly and with sensitivity. Anastacia McCleskey, as May, resonates warmth and compassion.
Still, it’s the chorus of voices that is truly resounding.
‘The Mountains Look Different’
Irish playwright, and well-known actor/director of his day, Micheal Mac Liammoir’s 1948 drama is making its New York stage debut at The Mint Theater. “Mining theatrical works hitherto unknown to us” is the company’s mission.
Here, the action takes place in Ireland, in an isolated farming community. It’s a place surrounded by mountains, forgotten by most of the world. Returning home from his years in London, Tom (Jesse Pennington) arrives with his bride of three days, Bairbre (Brenda Meaney). Hoping to build a new life, far from the chaos and constraints of city life, the newlyweds find the home to which they return ungiving, and unforgiving.
Aidan Redmond directs the production with a keen sense of the actors’ physical reality. Raised by an abusive father (Con Horgan), Tom can’t even open his mouth. His lips are sealed, and his speech is contorted. His upper body, fraught with stress, bears the chains of his psychic life. Pennington consistently sustains his constraints. The other men, too, living in this barren society, hold a festering sense of tension in their physical bearing, signaling violence.
Complicity is at work here, and along with that, the intrigue of characters who are either running away from or hiding hideous secrets, etched in a bleak past. When it erupts in murder, the need for social justice focuses on the weakest and most innocent character. Batty Wallace (Liam Forde) is a deaf mute who we see at the beginning, gingerly playing his tin whistle around Tom’s father, Martin’s house, as if to rouse him.
Far deeper issues of arousal, however, arrive when Tom introduces Martin to his bride. In this role, Brenda Meaney gives a deft portrayal of a woman of the streets, now plagued by her ugly past, and still victimized by the violence of men. Deftly shifting emotions, Meaney takes razor sharp turns into her character’s psyche, revealing a complex inner life, and exposing a web of lies.
In contrast, Horgan is a brutal one-note man, coarse, vulgar, and hungry for everything this desolate world cannot yield. Only the young villagers, especially McKenna Quigly Harrington as the ingenue, resonate with the potential of a more fruitful outcome.
That the original production at Dublin’s Gate Theater was greeted by audience protests should come as no surprise. Liammoir’s drama reveals morality at its worst. Prostitution is merely a symptom of the disease.
Creating the desolation of that world, Vicki Davis’s set of a small stone house, and its interior are realistically designed. But veering out of this realism is the vista of the world beyond. It’s a jarring mix, surrounded by the coldness of stone.