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Hell’s Kitchen on Broadway

Exciting coming of age story suggested by the life and music of Alicia Keys.

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Maleah Joi Moon as Ali (center) and the company of the Broadway production of Alicia Keys’ “Hell’s Kitchen” at Sam S. Shubert Theatre (Photo credit: Marc J. Franklin)

[avatar user=”Victor Gluck” size=”96″ align=”left”] Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief[/avatar]

The new musical Hell’s Kitchen has made a successful transition to Broadway from The Public Theater and the new version seems to have corrected some of the flaws from before. This jukebox musical with a score by singer/songwriter Alicia Keys and a book by playwright Kristoffer Diaz (The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity), is a big ambitious show, a love letter to New York, and inspired by the story of Keys’ 17th year. It is no longer over-miked by sound designer Gareth Owen, characters seemed to have deepened, the plot seems to have gelled into a distinct coming of age story, and the redesigned set by Robert Brill has moved much of the action closer to the audience. It is a crowd pleaser with the iconic Keys’ songs “Girl on Fire,” “Fallin’” and “Empire State of Mind.” Excitingly performed by its cast made up of a handful of characters and a large ensemble of 15 singer/dancers, its most famous leads Shoshana Bean and Brandon Victor Dixon as Ali’s parents are given less to do as this is the daughter’s story. In the leading role of 17-year-old Ali, making their professional Broadway debut, is Maleah Joi Moon who proves to be an exciting musical personality who can hold a show such as this together.

The musical follows several plot lines. Ali narrates her story often talking directly to the audience.  Living in a cramped one-bedroom apartment in Hell’s Kitchen’s Manhattan Plaza, she is often at odds with her mother Jersey (short for the nickname “Jersey Girl” from her ex-husband Davis) who thinks the neighborhood is too dangerous for a teenage girl and she is too young to be running around much alone. She is also very wayward about keeping up with her high school homework. When Ali falls in love with a street drummer Knuck who is older, her mother immediately takes against him as he reminds her too much of her irresponsible musician ex-husband, who left when Ali was two, and has Ray, the doorman, inform her of their meetings.

Shoshana Bean as Jersey and Maleah Joi Moon as Ali in a scene from the Broadway production of Alicia Keys’ “Hell’s Kitchen” at the Sam S. Shubert Theatre (Photo credit: Marc J. Franklin)

Jersey calls Ali’s absent father Davis, an itinerant jazz piano player, to come and help with her problem. Ali wanders into the building’s Ellington Room attracted by the music and encounters a professional pianist Miss Liza Jane who inspires her to learn how to play the piano. When they bond, Jersey becomes jealous of the time her daughter is spending with a stranger. Things come to a crisis when Jersey finds Ali sleeping with Knuck in their apartment on a day when Ali thinks her mother is at work. The show ends pretty much where it started but with Ali now with a mission to follow music and more balanced than before.

Michael Greif who has been associated with some of the most acclaimed musicals in recent years (Dear Evan Hansen, Next to Normal, Grey Gardens and Rent) directs with a sure hand. The choreography by the very busy Camille A. Brown is dynamic and exciting. Moon is a force of nature as Ali in all categories, singing, dancing, acting, and should have a very bright future. Bean and Dixon are fine in their small but important roles, as her estranged parents. Both are now more three dimensional and secure in their characterizations.  Best is Kecia Lewis as pianist Miss Liza Jane who brings .a quiet dignity and a stately elegance to her role as a mentor figure to Ali.

Maleah Joi Moon as Ali, Chris Lee as Knuck and the company of the Broadway production of Alicia Keys’ “Hell’s Kitchen” at the Sam S. Shubert Theatre (Photo credit: Marc J. Franklin)

Lamont Walker II, subbing for Chris Lee, in the role of Knuck is deeper more mature and less a brooding presence, no longer apologizing all the time for being the thug that Jersey assumes that he is. As Jersey’s two performer friends in the building Rema Webb and Nyseli Vega, new to the cast, have a more important role than before, while Ali’s school aged friends played by Vanessa Ferguson and Jackie Leon seem to disappear in the second act. As the rest of Knuck’s trio, Jakeim Hart and Oscar Whitney Jr. (subbing for Walker II) are excellent musicians and establish their street cred in the few brief scenes in which we see them.

Diaz’s book answers many of the questions which went unanswered Off Broadway. We now know where Ali goes to school and how old Knuck is. Howewer, we still don’t know what two jobs does Jersey work at and how little has Davis been in Ali’s life. Manhattan Plaza at 44 stories of artists, musicians and performers does not sound like the dangerous place Jersey describes to Ali as Hell’s Kitchen. The minor characters still seem a bit undeveloped and we know little about them: Jersey’s two best friends in the building Crystal and Millie, or Ali’s friends Tiny and Jessica. We also are not told how far Jersey got in her career as an actress which allows them to live in Manhattan Plaza, a rent stabilized building.

Kecia Lewis as Miss Liza Jane and Maleah Joi Moon as Ali in the Broadway production of Alicia Keys’ “Hell’s Kitchen” at the Sam S. Shubert Theatre (Photo credit: Marc J. Franklin)

The score of 23 musical numbers is developed by the orchestrations by Adam Blackstone and Tom Kitt. Although the score is mostly from the Alicia Keys catalog, there are three new songs written for the show (“The River” sung by Ali, “Seventeen” sung by Jersey and friends, and “Kaleidoscope” sung by Ali and friends) which seem less effective than the others though they are intended to flesh out Ali’s character. The three most famous songs (“Girl on Fire” sung by Ali and Jersey’s friends in the building, “Fallin’” sung by Davis and Jersey and “Empire State of Mind” used as the finale) are all treated like anthems which may be the orchestrations rather than the dramatic intent. The most powerful number is Miss Liza Jane’s quietly sung “Perfect Way to Die” with its muted, unobtrusive accompaniment, while her second number “Authors of Forever” has been affected by having been beefed up in its sound.

The design elements are more suitable to the story line but still make New York look unattractive. Robert Brill’s setting relies on a grid of windows and balconies while Peter Nigrini’s overly busy projection design is often intrusive of its Manhattan perspective. The often dark lighting by Natasha Katz makes it clear this is a bad time in New York City’s history even during the street sequences. The costumes by Dede Ayite are less bland than before, though in truth these are people who either can’t afford expensive clothing or who are not interested in how they look.

Brandon Victor Dixon as Davis (left) and the company of the Broadway production of Alicia Keys’ “Hell’s Kitchen” at the Sam S. Shubert Theatre (Photo credit: Marc J Franklin)

Hell’s Kitchen is both ambitious and noble in its intentions as a story of living in the big city, circa 1998. The Alicia Keys’ score sounds more effective in the larger theater in getting across the drama in its story. Now, the plot lines do seem to come together by the end, which may also be the restaging on the new set. The performances have deepened and the actors seem more self-assured in their roles than before. Ultimately, Hell’s Kitchen is a touching coming of age story suggested by the life of Alicia Keys but not strictly faithful to the facts of her life.

Hell’s Kitchen (open run)

Sam S. Shubert Theatre, 225 W. 44th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call Telecharge at 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.hellskitchen.com

Running time: two hours and 35 minutes including one intermission

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About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (990 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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