Metro Weekly

Alicia Keys Makes Broadway Magic with ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ (Review)

"Hell's Kitchen" traces the early years of Grammy-winning artist Alicia Keys, but it only scratches at the surface.

Hell's Kitchen - Photo: Marc J. Franklin
Hell’s Kitchen – Photo: Marc J. Franklin

If you wait long enough, your favorite recording artist will have a musical based on their catalog of songs. Neil Diamond, Huey Lewis, Michael Jackson, and The Who are currently represented on Broadway. Clearly theatrical pop is cash in the bank.

So it stands to reason that Alicia Keys would jump on the bandwagon for the semi-autobiographical musical Hell’s Kitchen. Reviews were fairly solid, and plenty of buzz was generated when the jukebox tuner premiered at the end of last year at New York’s Public Theater.

It didn’t even complete its run in January before Keys, along with producers, announced a transfer to Broadway, where it opened in April.

New Yorkers — and specifically those who live in the midtown neighborhood the show is named for (now a predominantly gay mecca) — will appreciate that the locality is having a moment in the spotlight. Given critical and audience reaction, it should be represented for quite some time.

It’s one of the few shows on Broadway with consistently phenomenal voices from stage veterans and debut makers alike — all of whom are performing the 15-time Grammy Award winner’s music and lyrics. No matter one’s opinion of Keys, she is an undeniably accomplished composer whose music has quickly become part of the cultural zeitgeist.

While Keys is not in the show, her 17-year-old self is portrayed by Maleah Joi Moon, a newcomer hailed by the New York Times as a breakout star of 2023. At just 21, Moon is a commanding presence whose performance straddles a fine line between belligerence and determination.

Young Ali wants what every other teenager who has ever lived wants: a place of acceptance and the discovery of their purpose for life. For Ali, she finds both through Miss Liza Jane (Kecia Lewis), an older lady who lives in her artist-habitat of Manhattan Plaza. After an argument with her mother, Jersey (Shoshana Bean), Ali finds solace in the Ellington room, an activity space in the apartment complex.

Jane takes Ali under her wing, slowly turning her into a musical prodigy. Her time with Jane also helps divert the fact that her father, Davis (Brandon Victor Dixon), is a traveling musician who rarely takes time to parent.

Meanwhile, Ali confidently works her way into the heart of Knuck (Chris Lee), a slightly older guy who thinks — because Ali told him — that she is eighteen. Of course, all hell breaks loose when Jersey finds out about the relationship. “Love at seventeen can’t last, because love at seventeen is not love,” her mother declares.

Few people are cavalier or heartless not to appreciate and relate to the heartache of young romance and parent-child distance and discord. But this is as far as book writer Kristoffer Diaz’s story goes.

The dearth of dramatic tension makes it seem like a sanitized version of young adult life instead of a gritty retelling with a bit more substance. One wonders why Keys, who was influential in guiding the project, decided to play it safe. More curious is why the show doesn’t take us through her path to stardom.

As it stands now, it is merely a slice of ’90s life through the lens of a young lady in a rough New York City neighborhood.

Orchestrators Adam Blackstone and Tom Kitt give a shiny polish to Keys’ melodic music, sung by a cast that really knows how to deliver it. Bean, a consistent vocal powerhouse, is in top voice, particularly in the contemplative “Pawn It All.” That Bean is such a gifted actor makes the song even more impactful.

The show’s most tender moment arrives at the end of the first act as Jane, sitting pensively at the piano sings, “Perfect Way to Die,” a song that captures the tragedy of young Black men and women dying too young and never achieving their potential. Thanks to Lewis, who has gravitas and wisdom, an otherwise manipulative attempt at tugging the heartstrings becomes a quiet, painful, and reflective meditation.

Given these gold nugget performances, Tony voters must have noticed even more fine qualities, as Hell’s Kitchen is the most nominated musical of the season. Lewis’s performance (also nominated) alone is worth the price of a ticket.

Hell’s Kitchen (★★★☆☆) is playing an open-ended run at the Shubert Theatre, 225 West 44th St. in New York City. Tickets are $58 to $344. Visit www.hellskitchen.com.