The Secret Life of Bees is a new musical based on Sue Monk Kidd’s novel of the same name; after premiering Off-Broadway in 2019, it has now made its way to London at the cosy Almeida Theatre. With book by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Lynn Nottage, music by Tony-winning composer Duncan Sheik and lyrics by Tony-nominated Susan Birkenhead, it’s a show with a lot of promise. Does it deliver?
Thankfully, it doesn’t disappoint – this is an uplifting and moving new musical, full of fantastic original songs performed by some seriously impressive vocalists. It tackles some serious material – focusing on an interracial friendship during the civil rights era, proceedings begin with Lyndon B Johnson announcing the Civil Rights Act in 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, colour, religion, sex or national origin.
We’re introduced to Lily (Eleanor Worthington-Cox), a young white woman, who wants to escape her abusive father (Mark Meadows); she runs away with housekeeper Rosaleen (Abiona Omonua). With only a postcard from Lily’s late mother to guide them, they find their way to a honey farm owned by the Boatwright sisters, August, May and June (yes, really) – where we also meet Zachary, Lily’s love interest, played brilliantly by Noah Thomas who we last caught starring as Jamie in hit musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.
While it’s a compelling story and the cast are terrific, the real standout here is the sheer quality of the songs – these emotional numbers absolutely soar and pack a real punch. While very occasionally let down by overly simplistic lyrics, almost every musical moment here is a triumph, with the hugely talented singers supported by a fantastic live band. Throw in a handful of neat choreographed sequences and what we have here is the makings of a truly great new musical.
The Secret Life of Bees gets an awful lot right. On occasion it feels a little too neatly tied together, or moments that should be significant feel slightly anticlimactic, but for the most part this production is a real success. It tells an interesting story and it’s powered by a collection of fantastic new songs – definitely worth checking out, and surely destined for a West End transfer soon.
GAY TIMES gives The Secret Life of Bees – 4/5
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