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).