Broadway Review: HELL’S KITCHEN (Shubert Theatre)

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by Kevin Vavasseur on May 3, 2024

in Theater-New York


What else can be said about Alicia Keys‘ new Broadway musical Hell’s Kitchen, that its recent thirteen Tony Award nominations, including one for Best Musical, haven’t already said (or implied)? Currently running at the Shubert Theatre and presented by multiple producing entities including The Public Theatre – the show is PHENOMENAL. It is thrilling. It is entertaining. It has probably the best music currently on Broadway, sung by a top-notch cast of talented performers. This trip down Ms. Keys’ memory lane to a time when an angsty, kinda troubled, kinda naïve, teenage girl battles with her single white mom, her absent Black dad, her burgeoning hormones and her unclear sense of self is, frankly, a really good show.

Shoshana Bean as “Jersey” and Maleah Joi Moon as “Ali”

Not so much a rags-to-riches story as a rags-to-springboard-for-future-success story, this dramatization of a short period of Ms. Keys’ life plays pretty simply and straightforward. Narrated in a first person, direct address style by Keys’ alter-ego, the teenage Ali (a stunning Maleah Joi Moon), book writer Kristoffer Diaz takes a nod from the golden age of musical theater by structuring this new show in an old-school, classic format. There’s a strong “I want” song (the beautiful “The River”), a powerful first act closer and even a jump-to-your-feet 11 o’clock number (didn’t know they did THAT anymore); all of which strongly supports the production’s multi-ethnic and very nineties milieu and storytelling. With music and lyrics by Alicia Keys, this love letter to her mom, her teenage self, her piano teacher and her city, in the guise of a Broadway show, turns out to be her gift of love to us as well.

Kecia Lewis as “Miss Liza Jane” and Maleah Joi Moon as “Ali”

Teenage Ali and her overprotective mother, Jersey, live in Hell’s Kitchen in the 1990s at the famed Manhattan Plaza — home to artists of all stripes and their families. Feeling stifled, bracing at her working mom’s strict rules, Ali finds friendship and solace in the teens from the neighborhood. Of course, from her mom’s perspective, some of those friends are a little shady. As fights with mom escalate, Ali soon finds herself attracted to a young bucket drummer named Knuck, who finds her annoying and is not interested. Even with her limitations and restrictions, Ali feels an inner calling to something bigger and, living in a creative pocket of New York City, of course she does. Egged on by her girlfriends, Ali pursues Knuck anyway and, impressed by her persistence and charm, he finally gives in.

Maleah Joi Moon as “Ali,” Chris Lee as “Knuck” and the company

Ali is happy, and not only because of her new (secret) love affair; she has begun piano lessons at her building with Miss Liza Jane, an older African-American pianist who also lives at Manhattan Plaza. With mounting problems at home, Ali begins viewing her piano teacher as a surrogate mom, a position the wise, older woman resoundingly rejects. Against his better judgement, Knuck accepts Ali’s invitation to hang out at her house while her mom is gone. That hanging out turns into a sexual encounter that is discovered when Jersey comes home early, practically catching them in the act. Jersey explodes, throwing the young man out of her apartment. At the same time, Knuck dumps Ali when, during Jersey’s tirade, he realizes Ali lied about her age. As he rushes out of the building. Knuck unfortunately gets into a tussle with the police as they were called on some other young black men who were hanging around outside. Since he’s also young and Black, Knuck gets hauled to jail. With her happy life now shattered and nowhere to turn since it’s all her mother’s fault, what’s a teenaged, future music superstar to do?

Maleah Joi Moon as “Ali” and the company

This tale of teen-age uncertainty, inherently feeling an undefined calling, stumbling upon an older mentor who sees potential the teen cannot, going through various crises and eventually emerging victorious is not a new scenario. What sells this production is the sheer amount of talent on and off stage. Keys’ ballads are lush and full and her up-tempo numbers are fun and bouncy. The supporting cast all deliver in their own right from Ali’s supportive friends (Vanessa Ferguson, Jackie Leon) to the Manhattan Plaza doorman (Chad Carstarphen) who knows all. And even if the plot is fundamentally familiar, Diaz’s book takes great advantage of the multicultural environment and characters so we forget we’ve been on this basic journey before. Diaz also nicely lays in the parallels between young Ali’s life experience and that of her mother’s, something no teenage girl would readily admit, so their eventual reconciliation is all the more moving.

Brandon Victor Dixon as “Davis” and the company

Broadway favorite Shoshana Bean shines brightly as Ali’s over-protective, hard-working and deeply loving mother, Jersey. Ms.Bean and Ms. Moon act this mother/daughter relationship so convincingly one sometimes forgets it’s a performance. And Ms. Bean absolutely kills the aforementioned 11 o’clock number, the rousing “Pawn It All”. Yes, the woman can sang. Brandon Victor Dixon is charming and sexy as Ali’s well-meaning but often disappointing, piano-playing father. As boyfriend Knuck, understudy Oscar Whitney Jr. held his own with the regular cast, creating a handsome, mature and level-headed foil to the sometimes flighty Ali. As Miss Liza Jane, the magnificent Kecia Lewis in a no-nonsense force to be reckoned with and devastates the audience with her superb rendition of the powerful, first act closing number “Perfect Way to Die”. She pulls this haunting, unexpected ballad from a place so deep in her life, she pulls something out of us as well. And not enough can be said about the charming, funny, revelatory, energetic and deeply felt performance of Ms. Maleah Joi Moon as Ali. Ms. Moon is the center and driving force of this wide-ranging production and this blazingly talented newcomer does not disappoint.

The company of Hell’s Kitchen on Broadway

Director Michael Grief expertly keeps the story front and center while allowing space for the production’s many contributing elements to have their due. Design elements, including Robert Bill’s structural set that’s a constant, mobile reminder of the New York City building-scape, are well integrated. Camille A. Brown’s choreography is striking and accurate, encompassing classic technique and street influenced movements. However, if anything, the amount of choreography is the one (slight) drawback of the show. There is a seemingly unnecessary conceit throughout where dance will come in to interpret the feelings or message of a duet or solo being sung. While the choreography is beautiful, it temporarily takes us out of the moment onstage and feels a distracting imposition upon the actors.

The company of Hell’s Kitchen on Broadway

Hell’s Kitchen is a sumptuous, shining, satisfying show that has great performances, a compelling story, enthralling music, creative production design, exciting choreography and a huge heart. It’s Alicia Keys’ tale –or rather Alicia Augello Cook’s tale — but it’s also a blueprint of almost every person who was kind of lost in their youth and overcame personal struggle to go on to bigger and better. It’s encouraging and it’s fun. And it’s New York. You know, that place where  “… these streets will make you feel brand new, big lights will inspire you”. Just like a musical called Hell’s Kitchen.

photos by Marc J Franklin

Hell’s Kitchen
Shubert Theatre, 225 West 44th Street
for tickets (on sale through January 2025), visit Hell’s Kitchen

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