I saw *The Secret Life of Bees* at Atlantic Theater Company on 7/2/19. It’s a new musical based on the novel by Sue Monk Kidd, with music by Duncan Sheik, lyrics by Susan Birkenhead, and a book by Lynn Nottage. I hadn’t read the book or seen the movie, so I went in completely ignorant, often the best way to approach a show, right?
It was extraordinary. The story was told in such a meaningful way - - the drama opened up and soared with the songs, which is what you want to have happen in a musical. One of the draws of the show was director Sam Gold (I’ve loved his productions of *Fun Home,* *The Flick,* *A Doll’s House Part 2,* *The Glass Menagerie,* and *Hamlet*). He staged the show beautifully, often with the entire company onstage even if they weren’t doing anything, which reinforced the sense of community.
I had seen two previous shows by Duncan Sheik, *Spring Awakening* and *American Psycho.* Those were both rock-based and this show was more acoustic in its approach. There was a strong gospel element, and let me tell you, this was some of the most thrilling singing I’ve ever heard in my life. Clearly I need to spend more time listening to gospel - - I’m going to a Kirk Franklin concert at the end of the month and I’m looking forward to that even more.
I often complain about how musical theater writers don’t use the full range of colors in their pit band. I guess Duncan Sheik must have heard me, because the instrumentation for this show was stimulating and full of variety. The band only had nine members, so maybe that leads to more inventiveness, rather than having a big Broadway orchestra.
There was one moment that was stunning in its construction: it was an intense dialogue scene, set at the kitchen table in the central house. One of the characters was speaking and then seamlessly switched to singing, a cappella. She then slapped her hand on the table to add emphasis to what she just said (sang). Another character started singing with her and there were other slaps on the table, and the song unfurled like that, a cappella the whole time, with clapping and slaps on the table adding impact. The way it organically grew out of the dialogue, it was genius.
LaChanze had one of the lead roles, she was the backbone of the show, a pillar of strength but entirely human and sincere. Never for a moment did she strike and attitude or display strength, she embodied it.
I’ll give shouts-out to two other members of the company. Vita E. Cleveland did some awesome drumming, I knew I was in for something special when I saw her pick up her drum. And the whole reason I saw the show was to see my friend Nathaniel Stampley - - he and I were in college together and I try to see him in everything he does in town (I even venture out of town when I can). He’s immensely talented, and it was a special joy to see him in such a great show. He had a song of his own, which he sang with touching honesty and profound vocal beauty.
Here's an interview with LaChanze. They show a photo of Nate at 0:55. I was thrilled to hear there's talk about the show moving to Broadway, I'm crossing my fingers and will definitely go see it again!