Review: Alicia Keys’ musical ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ is ambitious but unfinished

Even in the golden age of musical theater, shows died so often after intermission that critics came up with a name for the disease. “Second Act Troubles” presented in many ways: unmoored songs, desperate cuts, illogical crises, hasty workarounds. Yet all of these second act symptoms came from the same underlying condition: first act ambitions.

So it’s not really surprising that a hugely ambitious new musical like “Hell’s Kitchen,” the semi-autobiographical jukebox built on the life and catalog of Alicia Keys, would disappoint after the mid-show break, tumbling straight into the potholes she passed her first half. so wisely avoid. What’s surprising about this promising show, which opened Sunday at the Public Theater with obvious plans to move to Broadway, is how exciting it is so far.

Surprising to me anyway. I find that jukeboxes – especially biographical ones, like “Motown” and “MJ” – almost inevitably add to the ordinary difficulties of musical construction difficulties specific to their provenance. Involvement of the original artists (or their estates) leads to historical watering down. A rush for all the strengths results in a hand-picked resume. The catalog retreads, written for a different reason, fail to move the action forward. And since these songs are the selling point of the series, they end up moving the story along.

But Keys, working with playwright Kristoffer Diaz and director Michael Greif, sidesteps most of these pitfalls in the show’s first hour, setting up the story with remarkable verve and efficiency. In neat succession, it introduces the main characters (17-year-old Ali and his single mother, Jersey), the main setting (the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Midtown Manhattan in the late 1990s), the plot parameters (Ali’s thirst for love and art) and a looming source of conflict (Mom).

At the same time, he floods us with music to establish the worlds he takes us into, far beyond the R&B and pop that Keys is best known for. In a wonderful elevator sequence, Ali encounters opera, jazz, merengue and classical piano as she descends from the 42nd-floor one-bedroom apartment she shares with Jersey, a sometimes-juggling actor between two jobs. (The building, Manhattan Plaza, provides affordable housing for artists.) Then, when Ali reaches the street, a giant sound wave envelops him; all of New York, it seems, is singing, playing and, in Camille A. Brown’s exciting, contextual choreography, dancing.

We are only a few minutes into the show and his frame is fully in place. We know this will be a mother-daughter story of love and letting go, as Jersey (Shoshana Bean, warm and pyrotechnic) tries to keep Ali fed and safe. Although race is not explicitly an issue between them, Jersey is white and Ali is biracial, and Ali (Maleah Joi Moon in a sensational debut) will gradually be distanced from her mother’s smothering by the larger group of people she ‘she meets.

One is the classical pianist, Miss Liza Jane (the masterful Kecia Lewis), who will demand that Ali take lessons from her – even though in reality Keys began studying at age 7, not 17. And in the street, to the sound of music from 2003. On “You Don’t Know My Name”, Ali flirts with a bucket drummer named Knuck (Chris Lee, sweet as pie) even though he is in his twenties. He will resist – at first.

So, over the course of 11 songs, the first act does the work of ambitious first acts everywhere: expanding the horizon of the show to the larger world in which the action takes place (a world not fair to young black New Yorkers). and deepen our knowledge of the main characters through conflict. Humor too: Diaz – whose hilarious pro wrestling play, “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,” was a Pulitzer Prize finalist – saves the story from being too serious. Credit Greif, too, whose steady management of tone and tension draws drama from a tale that could easily have been too interior.

With Keys they also solve, or at least delay, many jukebox problems. By focusing very narrowly on just a few weeks of Ali’s life, “Hell’s Kitchen” chooses the possibility of dramatic depth over the highlights of his career. There’s not much sugarcoating, either: Keys seems perfectly willing to present her ambitious replacement as a hormonal teenager immune to common sense — and Moon, 21, is precociously intelligent and fearless in painting this complex portrait .

More importantly, Keys’ songs, even hits like “Fallin’,” “If I Ain’t Got You” and “No One,” fit into the story (and into the mouths of a variety of characters) without too much jimming. If they do not do so, the situation is effectively recognized. When Ali finally spends the night with Knuck – just in time, just before the various storylines coalesce into a dreadful event at the end of the first act – Ali’s friend Tiny (Vanessa Ferguson) is upset, because It’s meant to be an unapologetically female-centric story. “The world is her oyster because she has a man now?” she complains, interrupting the 2012 banger “Girl on Fire,” here repurposed as a joyous “I’m on top of the world” song. “This is what we do?”

Alas, “is this what we do?” » That’s what I felt the moment the second act started. As if the creators ran out of time for finesse — although Keys and Diaz have been working on “Hell’s Kitchen” for more than a decade — his mind spirals into lectures as the story, particularly Jersey’s, becomes fuzzy . Her strained relationship with Ali’s father, here a jazz pianist but in reality a flight attendant, bears the characteristic signs of dramaturgical whiplash. (On the other hand, he’s played by Brandon Victor Dixon, a human aphrodisiac, vocally and otherwise.) An argument between Jersey and Miss Liza Jane also seems trumped up, until it’s resolved in a obvious pathetic turn. And despite Bean’s talent, Jersey’s love for his daughter, at the heart of the series, gets lost in the attempt to complicate things.

The second act songs follow suit; it’s no coincidence that the three new ones Keys wrote for the production, all good, are at the top of the show. And although well-structured musicals usually contain far fewer songs in the second half than in the first to make room for the complexities of plot resolution, there are a whopping 14 here, ending indulgently well than inevitably by the 2009 New York anthem “Empire State of Mind”. .” As a result, “Hell’s Kitchen” becomes almost what it was trying to avoid in the first place: a blockbuster dump.

But because these hits are hits for a reason, there’s always pleasure in hearing them. The vocals (under the direction of Dominic Fallacaro) and the arrangements and orchestrations (by various hands, including Adam Blackstone, Tom Kitt and Keys herself) are exciting, if strangely unbalanced in Gareth Owen’s sound design. The backup sets (by Robert Brill), expressive projections (by Peter Nigrini), saturated lighting (by Natasha Katz), and often hilarious costumes (by Dede Ayite) are all Broadway-ready.

I hope “Hell’s Kitchen” will be too. Of course, many musicals make the transfer without ever resolving the problems of their first act, much less their second. It would be a shame here. Although not perfectly told, Ali’s discovery that art is love, with or without a man, is too rich not to reach a wider audience and a million more girls on fire.

Hell’s Kitchen
Through January 14 at the Public Theater in Manhattan; Duration: 2 hours 30 minutes.

Leave a Reply