By: Samuel L. Leiter
November 27, 2023: Hell’s Kitchen, the Public Theater’s new jukebox musical, with music and lyrics by Alicia Keys and a book by Kristoffer Diaz, is a propulsive, high-energy dose of music and dance that will have you bopping your head, waving your arms, and tapping your knees. The sugar rush of its two-dozen musical numbers, three new ones joined to those chosen from the Keys songbook, however, comes with meager nutrients for the brain; the net result is audibly and visually entertaining but not otherwise fulfilling. I suspect few will care.
Jukebox musicals come in a variety of flavors concocted to show off the well-known music of an individual, group, or genre. Among these flavors is the biographical one, as in shows about Carole King, the Temptations, or Neil Diamond, where the songs illustrate an artist or group’s personal and professional journey to the heights (and, usually, depths) of success. In Hell’s Kitchen, though, the artist, Alicia Keys, is shown only during a brief passage in her pre-fame adolescence, the songs being selected to highlight her story’s multiple emotional experiences. Unfortunately, matters are complicated by the show’s dependence on thin, fictional premises rather than authentically biographical ones. Nonetheless, the action is narrated by the central character as if it were real.
Like Alicia, our heroine, called Ali (Maleah Joi Moon, making a noteworthy debut), is the mixed-race daughter of a white, single mother, Jersey (a sensational Shoshanna Bean)—Key’s mother’s name is Terria—who lives in Manhattan Plaza, the famous rent-subsidized apartment house for artists in Hell’s Kitchen (a.k.a. Clinton), on New York’s West Side, near Times Square. Alicia, in fact, was born there. There’s even a cool bit where Ali rides the elevator—an effect created with lighting and projections—citing which artists are doing what on various floors upward to her one-bedroom on 42. And, like Jersey, Terria was an unsuccessful actress who supplemented her income with other jobs.
But Ali is 17, has no musical training, and is preparing to enter college; her real-life counterpart had been seriously studying classical music since she was seven, graduated (as valedictorian) from the Professional Performing Arts School at 16, received a scholarship to Columbia University, and, by the time she was 17, had been gaining attention as a professional performer for several years.
Alicia’s father, an African-American flight attendant named Craig Cook, had nothing to do with her from the time she was two; in the show, Ali’s African-American dad, Davis (an outstanding Brandon Victor Dixon), a talented musician, responds positively when Jersey calls on him to help her deal with Ali’s social problems. The suggestion that he was always on call to assist appears to be pure fantasy. (The script treats him unevenly, making him sympathetic when it helps, and irresponsible when that’s what’s needed.)
Also in the show, but not in life, Ali only begins to take a serious interest in music when she meets a regal pianist named Miss Liza Jane (a remarkable Kecia Lewis), a Manhattan Plaza resident, who, sensing her talent, gives her lessons in the residence’s all-purpose Ellington Room. The speed with which Ali becomes proficient makes one sorry Alicia had to start so young, practicing six hours a day, no less!
Diaz’s plot may be a satisfactory clothesline on which to hang Keys’s songs but that doesn’t excuse it for being simplistic and clichéd, features exacerbated by its two-and-a-half-hour length. There are two basic threads: in one, the ferociously protective Jersey insists on overseeing Ali’s social behavior because of all the dangers in what is depicted as their drug and crime-riddled neighborhood (seriously gentrified since then). Her dinnertime mantra is a commanding “Sit. Eat.” Having herself been there, done that in her youth, she doesn’t want Ali to go though it herself. At one point, her maternal overreach leads to a chaotic scene in which the local cops, friends of Jersey’s, react with unnecessary, if all-too-common, force.
Although Alicia later acknowledged the debt she owes to her mother, to whom she is said to be very close, she and Terria are known to have conflicted during Alicia’s formative years. Hell’s Kitchen deftly captures their tension in the Ali-Jersey relationship.
Ali is a stubborn, rebellious teen, resisting her mother’s hovering by practically forcing herself on the initially disinterested Knuck (Chris Lee, excellent), a sweet-natured, 25-year-old, plastic-bucket drummer. Dreadlocked and African American, he earns his living as a housepainter. To Jersey, he’s the thing that shall not happen under her watch.
Whether or not Ali’s crush on Knuck—to whom she lies about her age—has any factual basis or whether it’s a composite of different situations is irrelevant; it serves as a familiar convention designed to incite dramatic mother-daughter fireworks. While Jersey’s aggressive parenting can seem oppressive, Ali’s naïvely forward behavior with Knuck is not endearing either. But since the course of true love—be it romantic or filial—never does run smooth, can familial rapprochement be far behind?
The other, even more manipulatively sentimental, thread concerns Miss Liza Jane, the virtuosic pianist-singer who introduces Ali to great female pianists of color—like Hazel Scott—by demonstrating (video clips included) their styles. Her ambition is for Ali to become another branch on the tree whose roots grow out of such artists. Thus will Ali nobly continue the tradition endangered by her own imminent passing, a fact of which the self-obsessed Ali is ignorant until (weep, weep) it’s too late. But not too late for Ali to imbibe the importance of her teachings, and how valuable art is as an expression of one’s deepest feelings.
Fortunately, the triteness of the book is largely overwhelmed by the conviction of the performances, the creative direction of Michael Greif, the expertness of Adam Blackstone and Tom Kitt’s orchestrations, and the vibrancy of Camille A. Brown’s frequently hip-hop oriented choreography; the latter, though, sometimes falters from stylistic repetition or awkward placement, as when a man rises to dance his grief during a memorial service to a late resident.
Robert Brill’s generalized unit set of metal structures, complexly lit by Natasha Katz, allows for multiple locales to be quickly suggested by simple scenic elements and via the exceptional video projections of Peter Nigrini. Also reflecting the frenetic vibe are Dede Ayite’s often striking costumes, which offer a juicy interpretation of the 1990s New York street look. Gareth Owens’s sound design, however, so amps up the volume that many of the lyrics are blurred, which even my sharp-eared daughter confirmed.
Keys’s songs cover a broad range, from blues and jazz to hip hop to melismatic R&B ballads. Each is given an expert rendition, with vocal power supported by emotional foundation. For this superannuated viewer, relatively uninitiated in the Keysian oeuvre, those that stand out include whatever Shoshanna Bean’s Jersey belts, like “Love Looks Better,” her dramatic passion filling the Newman Theatre just as it likely will wherever the show—probably bound for Broadway—ends up. Kecia Lewis’s Miss Liza Jane, with a lower range any baritone would envy, will knock you sideways, with numbers like “Authors of Forever,” supplemented by her inimitable piano artistry. Brandon Victor Dixon finesses songs like “If I Ain’t Got You” with ultrasmooth vocals. And Maleah Joi Moon’s Ali rocks the rafters with the fiery “Girl on Fire” and others, finishing up by ripping those rafters down in the finale’s paean to New York, “Empire State of Mind.”
Writing the above reminded me of the many moments that Hell’s Kitchen gripped me with its musical magnetism, introducing me to songs by an artist with whose work I was only peripherally familiar. It also reminded me of how often I was disturbed by the shallow dramatic circumstances in which the music was embedded, and how tenuous, in fact, the lyrics sometimes are in relation to the situations and characters they’re intended to express. That, however, is the typical dilemma of jukebox musicals which, in cases like this, go out on a limb to place songs created under one set of circumstances to totally unrelated others. Nonetheless, however frail may be the dramatic content of Hell’s Kitchen, Alicia Keys’s score deserves a niche in Off-Broadway heaven.
Hell’s Kitchen ***1/2
Public Theater/Newman Theater
425 Lafayette Ave., NYC
Through January 14, 2024
Photography: Joan Marcus