The UK premiere of The Secret Life of Bees has opened at the Almeida Theatre in London, and reviews are coming in.
Written by award-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, and with music by Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening, American Psycho) and lyricist Susan Birkenhead (Working, Jelly’s Last Jam), The Secret Life of Bees is playing at the Almeida until 27 May 2023.
Directed by Whitney White, the musical stars Ava Brennan (Les Misérables; Hamilton; Tina – The Tina Turner Musical; The Lion King), Tarinn Callender (Hamilton; Come From Away), Danielle Fiamanya (Frozen, & Juliet, The Colour Purple), Rachel John (Hamilton, The Bodyguard), Mark Meadows (Quiz, Flowers for Mrs Harris), Abiona Omonua (Caroline, or Change), Eleanor House (Tempest), Richard James-Neale (The Book of Dust – La Belle Sauvage), Daniel Krikler (The Book Thief), Shekinah McFarlane (Six), Chrystine Symone (Anyone Can Whistle), Noah Thomas (Everybody’s Talking About Jamie), Marcellus Whyte (Motown) and Eleanor Worthington-Cox (Matilda).
Based on the best-selling novel by Sue Monk Kidd, this powerful, poignant and funny coming-of age story is set in 1960’s South Carolina and follows a lonely white teenage girl, struggling with the loss of her mother and a distant father. When her black caregiver and only friend is assaulted for asserting her civil rights, the pair escape on an adventure where they are taken in by a trio of black beekeeping sisters.
The wider creative team includes Shelley Maxwell (choreography), Soutra Gilmour (set design), Qween Jean (costume design), Neil Austin (lighting), Simon Baker (sound), Nigel Lilley (Music Supervisor and Musical Director) and Charlotte Sutton (casting director).
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The Secret Life of Bees reviews
"Blazing songs light up civil rights drama"
"A young white woman and her Black housekeeper flee across the American south amid the historic struggle, buoyed by astonishingly powerful music"
"First seen off-Broadway, the ground-shaking force of this musical lies in songs so blazing that they give goosebumps at every turn."
"Under the direction of Whitney White, with a succinct book by Lynn Nottage, it is Duncan Sheik’s music, accompanied by Susan Birkenhead’s rousing lyrics and a phenomenal band, that carries the story. The score contains soul, folk, blues and gospel. Some songs are hymnal. All are sublime."
"Omonua’s voice has a distinctive clarity and power in songs such as Sign My Name and Tiburon while every other voice is as big, rich or voluptuous."
"The story meanders, comes to a standstill at times and leaves loose threads. What is surprising is that none of this matters. Come for the music. Go home in awe."
"Songs carry the emotion in an ambitious musical of friendship and the American civil rights struggle that lacks subtext"
"... despite the importance of its themes, the obvious seriousness of its intent and the committed performances in Whitney White’s production, the show never gains sufficient traction."
"The storytelling is routine and literal, Birkenhead’s simplistic stacked rhymes devoid of subtext.... It is too often left to Sheik’s music to carve out the narrative’s emotional landscape – and although his melodies and rhythms are pretty and sometimes stirring, they buckle under the weight of so much dramatic heavy lifting."
"Shelley Maxwell’s foot-stomping, shoulder-shimmying, skirt-swishing choreography is energising, and Omonua and Worthington-Cox both deliver gutsy turns. But John, although her vocals are formidable, is tasked with animating an underwritten matriarchal figurehead."
"Sweet new musical is a joyful, inclusive crowd-pleaser"
"Duncan Sheik’s score is the true pleasure of this adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd’s 2001 novel"
"The Secret Life of Bees feels like a new kind of crowd-pleaser: joyful and inclusive."
"The novel is plotty, but playwright Lynn Nottage’s update makes some smart tweaks, altering aspects that could have jarred, and emphasising the political context. But the truest pleasure is Duncan Sheik’s score, with lyrics by Sue Birkenhead, and how gorgeously it is sung by this cast."
"Omonua and Worthington-Cox make a moving, formidable duo, robust enough not to settle for their lot but sometimes dazed by flashes of self-realisation."
"Not every note is met: the title song is slightly odd, and some of the dramatic scenes between songs land a little clunkily."
"Classy but ponderous musical adaptation of the smash hit Civil Rights-era novel"
"Rich and sweet but slow as dripping honey, this musical version of Sue Monk Kidd’s hit novel ‘The Secret Life of Bees’ has been crafted by a prodigious number of extremely talented individuals... And it’s good, but it never crosses over into brilliance. While I’ve not read the book I was left with the impression of a story too ponderous to really work as a musical, and lacking a great protagonist."
"Musically, there’s an awful lot to like here: Sheik’s songs are very nice, running the gamut from vibrant indie-folk to lush, horn-drenched funk."
"However, Sheik, Nottage and lyricist Susan Birkenhead’s mostly commendable avoidance of crass melodrama leaves US director Whitney White’s UK premiere production lacking in firepower."
"‘The Secret Life of Bees’ has a lot going for it. But slow pacing and a muted protagonist means it never gets out of first gear – worth you time, but as bees go it’s more bumble than killer."
"A sweet-natured drama that deserves to generate a real buzz"
"This adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd's 2001 novel, set against the background of the civil rights movement, has charm and warmth to spare"
"Regular Almeida-goers can be reassured that there’s still a respectable modicum of grit in the goo, although Lynn Nottage’s adaptation also marks something of a departure too from her best-known hard-hitting work (Sweat, Ruined)."
"... as we bundle fast through country, soul and gospel numbers, it can be hard to catch your breath and work out who to care about and focus on. But not only are the cast of Whitney White’s production in awesome voice they also invest the central characters’ palpable life-affirmation with winning sincerity."
"The outbreaks of foot-stopping, hand-waving frenzied worship – conducted amid a timber-frame set that implies barn, church and sanctuary, are too loudly infectious to resist. A West End run might be a stretch, but given how sour and racially divided the world can seem, it’s worth making a beeline for a show with a rare honeycomb heart."
"A civil rights musical buzzing with delights"
"The strength of the performances can sometimes lift a musical into a different league... The Almeida’s version — directed by Whitney White — contains some of the most impassioned singing I have heard in a show for quite some time."
"Eleanor Worthington-Cox makes an excellent Lily, her voice vaguely reminiscent of Stevie Nicks. Abiona Omonua is an affecting Rosaleen, a role which, unfortunately, fades into the background as the story progresses."
" Too many threads have to be tied up in the final scenes but I still enjoyed following the humorous, on-off progress of the courtship between August’s cello-playing sister June (Ava Brennan) and her lumbering beau Neil (Tarrin Callendar). An odd night, then, but a memorable one too."
"A vibrant new musical"
"Sue Monk Kidd’s bestselling novel has been given a potent musical makeover"
"... Duncan Sheik, the mastermind composer of Spring Awakening, offers a vibrant, varied and above all memorable playlist. From the first line of the first song, “River of Melting Sun”, we realise we are in for something special."
"The benefit of having a dramatist as classy as Nottage on board is clear: with skill and care she has shaped the lead characters into three-dimensional human beings, rather than mere ciphers for song. This show would pass the all-important test that dooms many musicals: take away the music and it would still stand up. On the downside, there is too much narrative crammed in. The story is bursting at the seams and spilling over, resulting in various plot details feeling under-explained."
"Worthington-Cox and Omonua make a fine central pairing; when their voices blend and soar the result is exquisite."
"Whitney White’s eloquent staging, often bathed in honey-coloured light by Neil Austin, is marked by radiant performances — particularly from Rachel John as the matriarch who runs the farm, Abiona Omonua as the careworn, kindly Rosaleen and Eleanor Worthington-Cox as Lily — and by uplifting song."
"The show is bumpy, however. Characterisation is slender, several plot twists feel abrupt and there’s a sense of packing too much into a pint pot. What raises it up is the blazing sense of solidarity and empowerment that pours off the stage in rousing, gospel-inflected anthems..."
"This musical adaptation is very odd, but you won’t be bored"
"The Secret Life of Bees embraces many troubling tropes, mixes them all up in a musical bran tub, and - I think - synthesises something new"
"Tremendous blues and gospel voices buoy up this oddball musical, which maps a fairytale of sisterhood onto the brutal realities of the racist American south in 1964. Adapted from the 2001 bestseller by Sue Monk Kidd, and first staged in New York in 2019, the show doesn’t seem to obey any rules, with songs blooming randomly as the story shape-shifts between genres and moods."
"The show’s ultimate, hazy message seems to be that community (like the bees have) and love, faith and voting rights (like they don’t) offer a better future. Maybe."
"In White’s production melodrama and heart-clutching sentiment butt up against rough reality. Worthington-Cox dutifully acts the fragile ingenue but has a powerful, emotive voice."
"It’s an ankle-swinger"
"Sweet, breezy and optimistic, this is a charming musical"
"As one might expect of a musical about honey, The Secret Life of Bees is sweet, if a little dribbly."
"The show is not quite about various things. It is not quite about race, not quite about feminism, not quite about religion. That may suggest a lack of focus. Some of the plotlines certainly evaporate, but this does not altogether matter. The evening has charm."
"Most of all the show is buoyed by the performances of Abiona Omonua as Rosaleen and Eleanor Worthington-Cox as the hesitant Lily... The tremulously voiced Worthington-Cox, a child star in the musical Matilda a decade ago, has proper stage presence."
"Those of dogmatic bent may feel that it all lacks a sting, but others of us might find that a relief and be grateful to enjoy a harmless ankle-swinger of an evening."
"A civil rights musical buzzes with potential"
"As a playwright, Nottage has provided some of the outstanding dramas of the past decade (not least in Intimate Apparel, slightly underrated in the UK). Sheik’s score is lively with banjo and gospel and blues. Here are voices full of edge and vision, while Shelley Maxwell’s vivacious choreography allows Noah Thomas to excel. Yet despite some memorable sung moments – particularly the strutting defiance in Sign My Name – it is an evening that pleases rather than punches."