Past Reviews

Broadway Reviews

Hell's Kitchen

Theatre Review by James Wilson - April 20, 2024

Hell's Kitchen. Music and lyrics by Alicia Keys. Book by Kristoffer Diaz. Direction by Michael Greif. Choreography by Camille A. Brown. Scenic design by Robert Brill. Costume design by Dede Ayite. Lighting design by Natasha Katz. Sound design by Gareth Owen. Projection design by Peter Nigrini. Music supervision by Adam Blackstone. Orchestrations by Tom Kitt and Adam Blackstone. Arrangements by Alicia Keys and Adam Blackstone. Music direction by Lily Ling.
Cast: Shoshana Bean, Brandon Victor Dixon, Kecia Lewis, Chris Lee, and Maleah Joi Moon, Chad Carstarphen, Reid Clarke, Chloe Davis, Nico DeJesus, Timothy L. Edwards, Desmond Sean Ellington, Badia Farha, Vanessa Ferguson, David Guzman, Gianna Harris, Jakeim Hart, Takia Hopson, Jackie Leon, Raechelle Manalo, Jade Milan, Onyxx Noel, Susan Oliveras, Sarah Parker, Aaron Nicholas Patterson, William Roberson, Niki Saludez, Nyseli Vega, Donna Vivino, Lamont Walker II, Rema Webb, and Oscar Whitney Jr.
Theater: Shubert Theatre (225 W 44th St).

Kecia Lewis and Maleah Joi Moon
Photo by Marc J. Franklin
It is very common for audiences at Broadway musicals to clap and hoot at the entrance of a star or in appreciation of impressive scenic design. In Hell's Kitchen, which concluded an Off-Broadway run at the Public in January and is now playing at the Shubert Theatre, a venerated New York City apartment building received entrance applause the night I saw the show. Manhattan Plaza, the complex that takes up a square block between Ninth and Tenth Avenues and with entrances on 43rd Street, was built in the 1970s to provide low-cost housing for people primarily (but not exclusively) in the performing arts. Hell's Kitchen is a coming-of-age story focused on singer and songwriter Alicia Keys, and Manhattan Plaza and the neighborhood in which it is located are central to the artist's musical and expressive development.

Set in the late 1990s, the musical with a book by Kristoffer Diaz focuses on a formative year in Keys's life. (Diaz has stated that many of the specifics are highly fictionalized.) Seventeen-year-old Ali (Maleah Joi Moon) lives with her single mother Jersey (Shoshana Bean), a former singer, but the rebellious and restless teen is looked after by a familial residential staff and community in Manhattan Plaza. These include a vigilant doorman (Chad Carstarphen); her mother's meddling friends, Crystal (Rema Webb, and played by Badia Farha at the press performance) and Millie (Nyseli Vega); and her two friends Tiny (Vanessa Ferguson) and Jessica (Jackie Leon).

For Ali, Hell's Kitchen, which still retained a great deal of pre-gentrification grit at the time, is a vibrant and culturally exciting neighborhood, and it arouses her own artistic affinities. (Dede Ayite's costumes perfectly capture the styles and attitudes of the period.) First, Ali is smitten with a group of bucket drummers, especially musician and building painter Knuck (Chris Lee), who play in the small park right outside her building. Then, she becomes a protégé of Miss Liza Jane (Kecia Lewis), a magisterial and consummate pianist who represents a cultural descendant of the great jazz and classical women musicians of the twentieth century. Davis (Brandon Victor Dixon, who gives a rich and layered performance), Ali's ne'er-do-well father is also a pianist, and he plays a key role in his daughter's musical awakening.

Maleah Joi Moon, Chris Lee, and Cast
Photo by Marc J. Franklin
Directed by Michael Greif, the musical is at its best when it focuses on the efflorescence of Ali's talents rather than on her domestic struggles. While Bean is sensational and brings the house down in her performance of "Pawn It All," the mother-daughter conflict seems overly familiar. Similarly, Lee is thoroughly winning as Knuck, but the romance at the show's center is neither compelling nor satisfying.

There is, however, palpable excitement whenever Lewis as Miss Liza Jane takes the stage. Although she spends most of her stage time sitting at a piano or moving slowly and deliberately toward the wings when the character abruptly declares a lesson over, Lewis is a force of nature. The first act's closing song, "Perfect Way to Die," is a devastating accounting of young lives lost to racial violence. In a throaty, soul-stirring rendition, Lewis powerfully captures the pain and sense of social injustice while making us confront the ongoing instances of police brutality. It makes for an indelible experience.

I admit that except for two songs, "Girl on Fire" and "Empire State of Mind," I was not familiar with Keys's oeuvre. I know that there are several songs written especially for the musical, but for almost all intents and purposes, this is a new score for me. By and large, the songs fit into Diaz's book seamlessly, and they are often quite thrilling. Under Lily Ling's musical direction and with orchestrations and arrangements by Tom Kitt, Adam Blackstone, and Keys, the songs comfortably merge the excitement of a rock concert arena show with the comparative intimacy of a Broadway theater. (Gareth Owen gratefully keeps the sound decibels at a reasonable level.)

As Ali, Moon is simply astonishing in her Broadway debut, and she commands the stage like a seasoned rock star. She adroitly imbues the character with rich emotional complexity, and her vocals and dancing are positively electric. Greif's polished staging and Camille A. Brown's invigorating choreography keep the show in near perpetual and swirling movement (like the neighborhood itself), but Moon consistently commands attention and never gets lost among the well-ordered bustle.

Hell's Kitchen concludes with what can best be described as a giant, unabashed, and goosebump-inducing love letter to New York City. Just as the finale of last year's disappointing New York, New York galvanized audiences in its ode to "the city that never sleeps," "Empire State of Mind" (which lyrically and musically references Kander and Ebb's anthem) is a heartfelt paean to the city's myths, aspirations, and unceasing vitality.

Cynically, Robert Brill's shifting and transforming scaffolded set, Natasha Katz's radiant lighting, and Peter Nigrini's striking projections of New York's iconic sites and landmarks could be interpreted as a PR stunt promoting the city as one big, glorious theme park. Indeed, as a denizen of Hell's Kitchen, I am often annoyed by the loud, reckless pedicab drivers (who often blast Key's song) and the bicyclists, who, like foolhardy drivers from Blade Runner, dart every which way on sidewalks and through traffic lights. And there are signs popping up declaring (because apparently, it now needs to be declared) gun-free zones. Miraculously, Hell's Kitchen, particularly in its final, glorious minutes, offers a pertinent and most-appreciated reminder of when and why people fall madly in love with New York.