“Hell’s Kitchen,” opening tonight at the Public Theater, is not a musical biography of Alicia Keys, nor, despite the title, is it about the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood where she grew up. It’s really a jukebox musical, which is to say, an efficient delivery system for Alicia Keys’ songs – two dozen of them (song list below), although three of them are newly composed for the show.
Yes, Alicia Keys songs are organized to tell a story loosely based on a moment in Alicia Keys’ life: At the age of 17, Ali (portrayed by Maleah Joi Moon, making an impressive professional debut) pursues a boy and discovers the piano while rebelling against her strict mother, Jersey (Soshana Bean.) But the story is not what’s most fresh or distinctive about “Hell’s Kitchen,” and enough of the details have been altered to turn Ali into a fictional character: Keys’ passion for the piano was ignited by age six, for example, not 17 as in the show; her largely absent father was a flight attendant, not a pianist.
And yes, Hell’s Kitchen is the neighborhood where Jersey is raising Ali as a single mother in a one-bedroom apartment in the bleak New York City of the 1990s.
“Drugs. Guns. Thugs, ” Jersey says. “Mayor Giuliani is going to clean all this right up.”
“Don’t worry,” Ali says, addressing the audience. “This show is not about him.”
But neither is it much about the rough neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen. There are some generic references to ghetto life in some of the lyrics, as well as scenes with fleeting depictions of tensions with the police. The scenic design has a 90s urban vibe including a backdrop that occasionally shows photos that may be of neighborhood buildings, as well as elements that vaguely suggest fire escapes albeit as if commissioned for a show room in Bloomingdale’s.
But the only vivid use of geography in the play is the specific building where Ali (and Alicia Keys) grew up: Manhattan Plaza, a 46-story federally subsidized residential complex on West 42nd exclusively reserved for artists of varying stripes. In a beguiling early scene, Ali rides the elevator in the building to give us a tour – a trumpeter on the 32nd floor, a dance class on 27….and, on the ground floor, the Ellington Room, where the classical pianist Miss Liza Jane practices every day.
Miss Liza, portrayed by Kecia Lewis, is the neighbor who inspires Ali to take up the piano. Lewis, Bean and Brandon Victor Dixon as her father Davis are the three veteran performers who give “Hell’s Kitchen” its juice –along with an ensemble that looks like New York, who execute Camille A. Brown’s energetic hip-hop flavored choreography.
Keys’ new songs are early on in Act I and hew to musical theater convention: “The River” is Ali’s “I want” song: After describing her solitude and the sirens in the distance that “drown the sound of playing children,” she sings the soulful refrain:
I know there’s more to life than this
Cause something’s calling me
So I’ll follow the river
So I’ll follow the river
I’m gonna catch the wind, cause I’m dying to begin
So I’ll follow the river.
This is followed by “Seventeen,” in which Jersey complains about her daughter to her friends and the doorman Ray (Chad Carstarphen) who tries to speak up on Ali’s behalf. The song reminds me a bit of the “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” song in The Sound of Music, except blunter and in a New York vernacular:
She is sassy, kinda nasty, got me feeling batty
…She’s seventeen and her brain just don’t work
But she acts like a jerk….
“Kaleidoscope” is a song of celebration, after Ali discovers Miss Liza Jane at the piano for the first time. Joined by an ecstatically dancing ensemble, she sings:
Nights like this they belong in the Guinness
Nights like this never want them to finish
Don’t wait for the end
Lets start a beginning
Better to be alive
Than just to be living
The main aim of most jukebox musicals is to include as many hits as possible and the main challenge fitting them in such a way that the story makes sense. “Hell’s Kitchen” is probably better than most in finding ways to place Keys’ twenty-one previously recorded songs with at least some coherence.
Most of the love songs – and love-is-complicated songs — are attached to the main sort-of-love story between Ali and a young drummer named Knuck (Chris Lee.)
But a surprising number are used for the relationship between Jersey and Davis – who even in this fictional version never really had much of a relationship.
At one point, Jersey reminisces about how she and Davis first met, at a park where he was performing “Not Even A King” on a piano — and then in an apparent flashback we see him on the other side of the stage at the piano. Never mind that the lyrics are in praise of an already-existing relationship (even kings “…can’t afford what we got”) It’s hard to complain when Brandon Victor Dixon is singing. You have not lived until you’ve heard Dixon and Bean duet on “Fallin’” Keys’ signature love song.
If Dixon and Bean give swoon-worthy interpretations of some of Keys’ catchiest melodies, Kecia Lewis is on fire in Keys’ most moving and intense tune, “Perfect Way To Die.” The song is about a woman whose son has been shot dead. Nobody is shot dead in “Hell’s Kitchen.” There’s no indication that Miss Liza Jane had a son who was killed.
Miss Jane sings the song after Ali enters the Ellington room and tells her she is too angry to play piano right now. In the scene right before, the police have a (somewhat murky) encounter with Knuck, possibly instigated by Jersey, which led to his arrest. Miss Liza Jane excoriates her student: “Then why the hell are you in here and not out there. ¥ou were in pain. That pain led you here. Listen to that pain. Do something with it.”
If the lyrics don’t correspond to the situation of the scene, the emotions are deeply aligned and easily shared by the audience. The same could be said about much of “Hell’s Kitchen.”
Public Theater through January 14
Running time: Two hours and a half, including an intermission
Tickets: No tickets available at this time, but check out:
Scenic design by Robert Brill, costume design by Dede Ayite, lighting design by Natasha Katz, sound design by Gareth Owen, projection design byPeter Nigrini, hair and wig design by Mia Neal,and prop management by Claire M. Kavanah.
Orchestrations by Adam Blackstone and Tom Kitt, arrangements by Alicia Keys and Adam Blackstone, music consulting by Tom Kitt, music coordination by Kristy Norter, and music direction by Dominic Fallacaro.
Cast: Shoshana Bean(Jersey),Chad Carstarphen(Ray/Ensemble),Reid Clarke(Ensemble),Chloe Davis(Ensemble),Nico DeJesus(Ensemble),Brandon Victor Dixon(Davis),Timothy L. Edwards(Ensemble),Desmond Sean Ellington(Understudy),Badia Farha(Understudy),Vanessa Ferguson(Tiny/Ensemble),David A. Guzman(Ensemble),Crystal Monee Hall(Crystal/Ensemble),Gianna Harris(Understudy),Jakeim Hart (Q/Ensemble),Chris Lee(Knuck),Jackie Leon(Jessica/Ensemble),Kecia Lewis(Miss Liza Jane),Raechelle Manalo(Ensemble),Jade Milan(Understudy),Maleah Joi Moon(Ali),Onyxx Noel(Understudy),Susan Oliveras(Understudy),Sarah Parker(Ensemble),Aaron Nicholas Patterson(Understudy),William Roberson(Understudy),Niki Saludez(Ensemble),Mariand Torres(Millie/Ensemble),Donna Vivino(Understudy),Lamont Walker II(Riq/Ensemble), andOscar WhitneyJr.(Understudy)
You Don’t Know My Name
Not Even the King
Teenage Love Affair
Un-thinkable (I’m Ready)
Girl on Fire
Perfect Way to Die
Authors of Forever
Love Looks Better
Work on It
Authors of Forever (Reprise)
If I Ain’t Got You
Pawn It All
Like You’ll Never See Me Again
When It’s All Over
Empire State of Mind