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The Secret Life of Bees, Monday Night Magic

Posted 7/15/19

Secret Life of Bees reviewed  by Fern Siegel for

“Some folks are born on the wrong side of right,” Rosaleen (Saycon Sengbloh) explains to teenage Lily (Elizabeth Teeter), the white daughter of an abusive father. The same applies to her. She’s a black woman in 1964 South Carolina who is beaten for trying to register to vote.

Mistreated and misunderstood, the two escape their small-town tormentors and find sanctuary at a bee farm run by the Boatwright sisters: fragile, sorrowful May (Anastacia McCleskey), tough-as-nails June (Eisa Davis) and wise, caring August (LaChanze).  Themes of death and female empowerment permeate this singular production.

Now at the Linda Gross Theater, The Secret Life of Bees, the musical adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd’s 2002 novel, is beautifully realized, though deviates, in part, from the book. Mimi Lien’s set design is spare; consisting of flowers and candles, blocks of hives and a driftwood statue of the Black Madonna. Jane Cox’s rich, warm lighting augments it.

Director Sam Gold arranges the versatile musicians on both sides of the stage, embracing his excellent cast. Duncan Sheik’s pop-bluegrass-African-inflected score and Susan Birkenhead’s emotion-filled songs give a soulful spin to the various conflicts, both internal and external. 

Musical remakes of novels are always tricky. The leisurely pace of a 200+-page book provides time for depth and back-stories. Here, the essence of the musical, with book by Lynn Nottage is more compact. The drama is encapsulated into a suffering dichotomy: societal and personal.

Rosaleen is the victim of a cruel, overt racism that allows white Southerners to degrade blacks with impunity. That reality is all too familiar to the Boatwrights and their teenage hire, Zachary (Brett Gray). Though LBJ has signed the Civil Rights Act, enforcing the law in the South will result in bloodshed. Conversely, Lily is carrying a bucketful of individual guilt. As a toddler, she was blamed for the death of her mother. 

What neither knows are the secrets the Boatwrights hold, a pivotal point in ensuring the story comes full circle. Nor do they realize that healing comes from generosity, understanding, time and truth. It is August, earth mother to all, who nurtures and encourages Rosaleen and Lily.

As August, LaChanze exudes a practical wisdom that navigates even terrifying situations with dignity. Davis’ June is a study in uncompromising refusal to bend, either to marriage proposals or the realities of Southern life. McCleskey’s May is unbearably sensitive to the world’s transgressions. Sengbloh’s Rosaleen is a study in growth and determination. Her story is every bit as compelling as Lily’s. Together, each actress perfectly captures the specificity of character. 

Similarly, Teeter’s Lily is lovely. She is honest about her insecurities and troubled life, while Gray’s Zachary is a perfect counterpoint; he has purpose and a physical presence that is notable.  
The Atlantic Theater Company’s The Secret Life of Bees captures a problematic time and place in American life. But this memorable musical also celebrates people who champion decency and humanity, rather than succumb to fear and indifference.

Farther downtown is the amazing Monday Night Magic, billed as New York City’s longest-running off-Broadway magic show. It plays every Monday night at The Players Theatre, 115 MacDougal St., in Greenwich Village.  

And the show is not to be missed.

Each Monday, three different professional magicians appear, introduced by Peter Samelson, the master of ceremonies and an accomplished magician in his own right.

The night I went, Noah Levine, Carl Mercurio and Jon Stetson, the inspiration for CBS’ “The Mentalist,” performed. All were exceptional. In fact, the evening embraces a variety of magic. Even intermission is a chance to experience what’s called “close-up magic,” featuring masters of sleight-of-hand. And their skills are stunning. So deft are the magicians, you cannot believe your eyes!

Upcoming performers include: Carisa Hendrix, Nathan Coe March and Michael Chaut on July 22 and Alexander Boyce, Jeff Moche and Carol Massie & Joe Given on July 29.

Most theaters are dark on Monday; here is a perfect way to augment a love of the dramatic. Monday Night Magic is hypnotic and entertaining. For more information. —Fern Siegel