Theater: “Hell’s Kitchen,” the Alicia Keys musical @ the Public
“Hell’s Kitchen,” the new Alicia Keys musical at the Public Theater, offers an outstanding opportunity to hear the best of this artist’s work all in one place. Unlike many vocalists we hear today, her repertoire is rich and varied: “Falling” is as different from “Girl on Fire!” as “If I Ain’t Got You” is from “Empire State of Mind.”’
Keys’ real-life story is just as interesting. Raised by a single mother in Manhattan Plaza, a New York City high-rise that serves as a home to artists, she began composing at the age of 12, trained as a classical pianist, served as valedictorian of her high school class, and was subsequently signed by a major recording studio while she was still a freshman at Columbia University.
It remains a mystery, therefore, why Keys and her collaborator Kristoffer Diaz felt these real-life accomplishments weren’t interesting enough material for an off-Broadway play,, and why they created a mostly fictional and pretty uninteresting book in its place that doesn’t do justice to Keys’ fabulous life and career.
In “HK “ which Keys herself wrote and coproduced, “Ali” (Maleah Joi Moon) as she is called here, is a troubled, directionless kid who hangs out regularly with her homegirls in front of Manhattan Plaza. One summer day, she begins flirting with Knuck (Chris Lee), a self-proclaimed “thug” who makes music with his homies by banging on the tops of paint buckets. Ali and Knuck become romantically involved, which alarms Jersey, her single mother (Shoshana Bean) who forbids her daughter to see him. Ali defies her mom and all hell breaks loose.
Hiding from her mother in the building’s music room, Ali meets Miss Liza Jane (Kecia Lewis), an older virtuoso pianist who sees the young girl’s potential and teaches her to play the piano. From then on, Ali discovers her passion.
Learning to play piano at age 17? Sorry, please see real-life story above. Fighting tooth and nail with her mother who was actually very supportive of her daughter’s career? Also false. Taking license is fine but this creative leap is as wide as the East River. Plus, Ali, as portrayed by Moon, comes off as a bratty selfish teen, sulky at having to eat her mother’s cooking every night and at not being allowed to date her boyfriend.
Push past this disconnect from what really happened, and “Hell’s Kitchen” still offers you a lovely night out. The cast is chock full of great vocalists, starting with Brandon Victor Dixon, who plays Ali’s handsome, charming dad and Jersey’s ex. He croons as sweetly as Marvin Gaye, while swirling a glass of amber liquid at Jersey’s dinner table. “It’s just iced tea!” his ex-wife snaps back. Bean (from “Waitress”) delivers some great numbers herself, while Lewis as the stately piano teacher brings down the house with “Perfect Way to Die.”
The anthemic “Empire State of Mind” production number serves as a stirring finale to the show, one that makes New Yorkers proud to live here, and makes non-New Yorkers wish they did. In short, while the musical “Hell’s Kitchen” isn’t perfection, it’s good to be reminded how close Alicia Keys’ music comes to it.
Like this review? Follow me at “What Does Aug Think?” at acsntn.substack.com. Thank you!