Alicia Keys Charts Broadway Beginnings in HELL’S KITCHEN — Review
If there are reasons to be skeptical about an Alicia Keys jukebox musical titled Hell's Kitchen, all are banished the second its cast starts singing. With a book based on Keys’ teenage years by Kristoffer Diaz, this new work at the Public Theater is one of the most freshly sung productions in memory, featuring a breakout performance from Maleah Joi Moon in their professional stage debut.
Instantly lovable, Moon brings a lively spark to Ali, a 17-year-old New Yorker growing up in the artistically inclined Manhattan Plaza complex with her single mom (Shoshana Bean). In her FUBU jerseys and peeping Tommy Hilfiger boxers (Dede Ayite does stellar costume work), she feels the spark of first love, with the older Knuck (Chris Lee), and the thrill of learning to play piano, thanks to a noble fellow resident, Miss Liza Jane (Kecia Lewis).
Moon’s voice is textured but full-throated, endlessly exciting and bursting with character as it defines a song’s melody. In short, it makes Bean’s casting – she has, dare I suggest, never sounded better – perfect. The same goes for Brandon Victor Dixon as her absentee father, though he is (tragically, if logically) underused. Playing another of Ali’s parental figures, Lewis deftly carves her way through her songs.
Tom Kitt's orchestrations reveal a surprising dramatic thrust in Keys’ music, which consists of pre-existing material plus a handful of new songs. Like the sounds of Manhattan Plaza’s ground floor, their driving force is “piano, always piano.” If a song like “You Don’t Know My Name” isn’t inherently theatrical, the production creates ample room to just luxuriate in the cast’s impeccable vocals.
This can only hold for so long, though, and, with 24 numbers, the show is overloaded with music. While the production places singers back at the fore of musical theatre (imagine!) Diaz’s book needs more room to breathe. When Ali’s friends (Jackie Leon and Vanessa Ferguson) say it’s good to have her back near the end of the second act—I’d nearly forgotten they figured into the plot. Two of her mom’s friends (Crystal Monee Hall and Mariand Torres) and the building’s friendly doorman (Chad Carstarphen) are also fun but underdeveloped.
What’s oversaturated is its insistence on being a love letter to Manhattan. Like New York, New York last season, it confuses having wall-to-wall ensemble numbers set across town with letting the city’s rhythm provide its own background hum. Similarly over-enunciated is a beat involving police brutality; while its function winds up being (surprisingly) gracefully employed, its use as act one’s closer feels manipulative, dangling a Black person’s possible death as a cliffhanger.
Michael Greif, who has never met a beam structure he couldn’t direct a scenic designer (here it’s Robert Brill) to mount screens on, stages the action adroitly, though Peter Nigrini’s projections are superfluous and a bit condescending whenever spelling out location names. It's Camille A. Brown’s choreography that best brings the work to life. Her work here is lively and inventively blocked, thrumming with individuality even in the show’s group numbers.
There are times during Hell’s Kitchen where it is easy to see how Broadway and the pop charts once worked hand in hand. The music is current and endearing, further enlivened by a cast seemingly unspoiled by conservatory training or the idea that a stage voice should have all its kinks and character ironed out. With an embarrassment of vocal riches undergirding her life’s work and story, Keys might well soon cement her own cred on the theatrical street which traces her home neighborhood's horizon.
Hell’s Kitchen is in performance through January 14, 2024 at the Public Theater on Lafayette Street in New York City. For tickets and more information, visit here.