Writing a biographical musical is tricky. Where do you start and where do you end? Lives often don’t follow a dramatic arc, and bending events in the right curve could damage them. Write a carthe biographical musical is even trickier. If you’re notable enough to write one, it can be difficult to mention all of your accomplishments. Surely you don’t need to explain yourself?
Alicia Keys – global megastar and winner of fifteen Grammy Awards, including three for Best R.&B Album – carefully avoids these problems with the often exhilarating (and sometimes repetitive) “Hell’s Kitchen,” now in front of the audience. First, she and her author, Kristoffer Diaz, limit their focus to a few months in the life of a musically gifted seventeen-year-old in New York. (Those words should instantly make Keys think of “Empire State of Mind” somewhere in your limbic system.) Their heroine, young Ali (Maleah Joi Moon), experiences both a sexual and artistic awakening, all while rebelling against her. Jersey (Shoshana Bean), a protective single mother, who just wants to keep her safe in their apartment above the Hudson. Ali imagines herself as a sort of Rapunzel in Timberland boots. “It’s just me, locked in this tower, cut off from this city,” she shouts as the band’s backing swells. “Fuck, I’m angry.”
The show draws primarily from Keys’ catalog, starting with deeper cuts (the delicate waltz “Gramercy Park,” from her 2020 album, “Alicia”) and a few new songs, unleashing the famous numbers (“Girl on Fire”, delivered to the force of a siren) only when a certain dramaturgical flow has been established. Exactly how autobiographical is “Hell’s Kitchen”? The answer is elusive. There are certainly parallels between creator and character: Alicia and Ali both have absent fathers; both fall in love with an older man; both are inexorably drawn to the piano. And both grew up in the 1990s in Manhattan Plaza, a huge subsidized housing complex for artists west of Times Square. In the production’s softest, lightest touch, Ali, while taking the elevator up to his apartment, on the forty-second floor, listens to the sounds of his building every time the doors open – merengue at twenty-seven, jazz trumpet at thirty-two. . But when Keys was seventeen, she wasn’t learning chords. She had long been a recognized prodigy and was already battling with Columbia Records for what would be her debut album, “Songs in A Minor.” She had also been living independently for about a year.
Thus, “Hell’s Kitchen” plays like a Keys-influenced fable, which the director, Michael Greif, stages with the help of billboard projections by Peter Nigrini. (You sometimes feel like you’re being offered a real estate opportunity from Hell’s Kitchen.) A large ensemble, choreographed by Camille A. Brown, moves propulsively around Robert Brill’s dark set of sliding black cubes. This is the late ’90s in all its cargo-pants glory: jeans that refuse to flatter—costume designer Dede Ayite finds a high-cut one particularly terrifying—and best-forgotten dance moves, like the Running Man. But the dancers appear at the strangest moments, even when the characters are seducing each other or attending funerals. Apparently you can’t have a private moment in New York without a dance team stepping in to do some interpretive work.
There’s no villain as such, but Ali’s drummer Romeo, Knuck (Chris Lee), panics Jersey so much that she asks her friends, including a group of cops, to keep Knuck away of his daughter. Of course, this sets off a brutal encounter. A virtuoso pianist who lives in the building, Miss Liza Jane (Kecia Lewis), begins teaching Ali to play and, although the musical has not yet figured out how to handle this character, Jersey, for opaque reasons, blames him. — Lewis constructs an entire architecture from tone alone. She closes the first act with a dirge about violence against young black men, “Perfect Way to Die,” dipping into a vocal register and then, impossibly, back again. Her voice, excruciatingly beautiful, seems to be digging a grave.
Indeed, the voice casting of the series brings nuances where Diaz’s script does not always succeed. Moon’s soaring, youthful tone has a gorgeous, raspy burr, while Bean’s stunning hammer vocals have a similar, fractured quality. The mother-daughter relationship is contained in their two approaches to this raw sound: one takes it slowly, the other wields her stress like an audible weapon. We also learn everything we need to know about Ali’s undevoted father, Davis (Brandon Victor Dixon), from the way his smoky voice drifts across the stage. At one point, he lets his tone become particularly seductive, while swirling a glass of amber liquid at Jersey’s dinner table. “It’s just iced tea!” Bean makes hilarious remarks to him. No matter where this guy goes, the club goes with him.