The Citiblog

Review: Alicia Keys’ Hell’s Kitchen Is On Fire!
April 21, 2024, 12:52.18 am ET


Photo: Marc J Franklin

By Brian Scott Lipton

Being able to brilliantly straddle the line between (semi)autobiography and a universal coming-of-age tale is just one of the many achievements of the vibrantly exciting new musical, “Hell’s Kitchen,” now at the Shubert Theatre. Expect a lot of Tony Award nominations – and perhaps even a statuette or two – for this extremely accomplished, feel-good musical!

The extraordinary singer-songwriter Alicia Keys (winner of 16 Grammy Awards, among many other honors) has clearly put her heart, soul and much of her esteemed musical catalogue – this is primarily a “jukebox” musical -- into this deeply personal enterprise about a gifted if unhappy 17-year-old named Ali (played with remarkable assurance and a killer voice by stage newcomer Maleah Joi Moon in a dazzling Broadway debut).

We watch eagerly as Ali struggles to find her true self while growing up in the 1990s in the still-dicey Manhattan neighborhood that gives the show its title. Petty crime aside, she’s also dealing with an overly protective white mother, Jersey (the vocally dazzling Shoshana Bean) and a mostly absent African American musician father, Davis (Brandon Victor Dixon, oozing charm from every pore and singing like a dream),

But rather than letting the show feel trite or even self-indulgent, either of which could have been the outcome, librettist Kristoffer Diaz, director Michael Greif, and choreographer Camille A. Brown have all used their considerable talents to make this story feel both fresh and heartfelt, even if it loses a little steam in the second act. (Brown’s modern-dance choreography for the large, athletically gifted ensemble is among the evening’s high points, even if it pops up in some unnecessary places.)

Moreover, there’s a surprising poignancy in both Ali’s brief, ill-conceived romance with Knuck, a somewhat older “thuggish” street musician (beautifully embodied by Chris Lee, who serves up the perfect mixture of toughness and tenderness) and her relationship with Miss Liza Jane, a no-nonsense pianist who lives in Ali’s building and becomes her teacher and her mentor. It helps immensely that she’s portrayed by the unbelievably powerful Kecia Lewis, who walks away the show time and again, especially with her rendition of “Perfect Time to Die.”

Still, the show’s wealth of emotion derives primarily from Keys’ music, alternately soulful, defiant and even anthemic – and the fact that even her most familiar songs have been stunningly rearranged by Keys and Adam Blackstone and orchestrated by the great Tom Kitt so they feel brand new.

For example, her familiar anthem “Girl on Fire” is no longer a solo boast, but a community’s congratulations of Ali’s personal achievements; “Not Even the King,”, and “Fallin’,” are both soulful duets for Bean and Dixon that redefine the idea of a romantic love song; while the depth of mother-daughter love is stunningly expressed by Moon and Bean in the irresistible “No One.” Dixon does his paternal part with “If I Ain’t Got You.” And for her own showstopper, Bean does everything she can on the angry-yet-humorous “Pawn It All.”

The show’s physical production isn’t overly lavish, but it works. Some members of the amazing orchestra are seated on Robert Brill’s two-tiered stands that moves back and forth from the often-vacant stage, while the rest remain offstage. Dede Ayite’s costumes are (as usual) colorful and decade appropriate, while d Peter Negrini’s evocative projections set the time and place with precision.

And for those who feared the mega-hit “Empire State of Mind” would simply become a mega-mix singalong, spoiler alert: it serves as a moving finale from the whole cast and a tribute to all of those who live or have lived in New York and watched their dreams come true. You should try it some time if you haven’t.