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'The Secret Life of Bees' review: Stinging drama mixed with sweet music

Elizabeth Teeter and Manoel Felciano star in "The

Elizabeth Teeter and Manoel Felciano star in "The Secret Life of Bees" at the Linda Gross Theater. Photo Credit: Ahron R. Foster

WHAT "The Secret Life of Bees"

WHEN | WHERE Through July 14, Linda Gross Theater, 336 W. 20th St.

INFO From $86.50; 866-811-4111, atlantictheater.org

BOTTOM LINE An inspirational coming-of-age story set amid the racial turmoil of the '60s.

You can’t keep running from things that scare you, the young woman is warned. At the moment, that would be an angry swarm of bees. But the teenage Lily lives in terror of so much more in "The Secret Lives of Bees," the engaging, heartfelt musical getting its world premiere at the Atlantic Theater Company.

This adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd’s 2001 bestselling coming-of-age novel by Lynn Nottage, with music by Duncan Sheik and lyrics by Susan Birkenhead, is an inspiring and emotional exploration of lives in turmoil during the racially charged '60s.

Elizabeth Teeter, a teen who already has impressive Broadway credits ("The Crucible," "Mary Poppins"), is a talent to keep an eye on, giving an intelligent, introspective performance as the quietly desperate Lily. She's a girl on the run, getting the courage to leave her abusive father only after her black caretaker Rosaleen (the stunning Saycon Sengbloh) is beaten and arrested while trying to sign voter registration rolls.

A postcard of a black Madonna that Lily finds among her late mother's few belongings leads them to the home of August, May and June Boatwright, three beekeeping sisters who know more than they initially let on about Lily’s back story. 

The sisters, played with a sublime mix of power and grace by LaChanze, Anastacia McCleskey and Eisa Davis, first offer shelter and sustenance to the homeless pair, but a deeper bond is growing, one firmly based in their abiding sense of family and deep faith. There are men, of course, but the only one who makes us feel much of anything is Zachary (Brett Gray), the teen who helps with the bees and wakens Lily’s buried yearnings.

Director Sam Gold, whose "King Lear" starring Glenda Jackson just closed on Broadway, finds more intense, driven women here, and he is wise to let their astonishing voices carry the production. The music is a well-thought-out mix of gospel-tinged hymns, affirmative anthems and one clever love song to a car ('55 Fairlane for you car geeks). The almost-bare stage glows, mostly by candlelight, along with the fluorescent lights of the musicians who ring the edges. And when the bees come out, and they do frequently (think the birds in "The Lion King"), the stage shimmers with their hypnotic movement.

This is one of those shows that sticks with you. Watching it is a little like going to a religious service — it gives you faith that the world could be a better place. For this particular show, that better place just might be Broadway. 

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