Hell’s Kitchen | 2hrs 30mins. One intermission. | Public Theater | 425 Lafayette Street | 212-967-7555
Is Manhattan Plaza really Hell’s Kitchen? The question bugged me during the very glossy and confident musical with songs by Alicia Keys now playing at the Public Theater. I lived in the HK in the 2000s as it grew a lot pricier and more congested. Its Taxi Driver days of crime and filth were long gone by the ’90s, when Keys’ highly personal (but fictional) coming-of-age tale is set. I have friends who still live in the Plaza, but I always consider the area Midtown West. Since this semi-jukebox affair aspires to an In the Heights level of neighborhood boosterism, I guess In the Mid doesn’t have the same sparkle. (Google says Hell’s Kitchen’s southern edge is West 41st Street, but New Yorkers can agree to disagree.)
Located on West 43rd, Manhattan Plaza is a high-rise apartment complex built in the 1970s that provides subsidized housing, often to artists. That’s where Ali (Maleah Joi Moon) resides with her mom, Jersey (Shoshana Bean), an ex-actor raising Ali on her own. Years ago, when Jersey was scarcely older than her daughter and hanging out in Tomkins Square Park, she fell for the charming pianist Davis (Brandon Victor Dixon)—Ali’s dad. Davis was never really husband material, nor can he commit to fatherhood now. Tough but nurturing, Jersey always makes sure Ali eats dinner before dashing off to the night shift. “I don’t know what she thinks she’s keeping me safe from,” Ali sasses at the audience. “Far as I can tell, there ain’t much to fear outside this apartment door. And she’s not here, so there ain’t no way I’m staying inside.”
An unreliable narrator due to youthful naivete, not dishonesty, Ali is your typical 17-year-old: chafing against her mother’s authority, eager to hang with friends, and definitely interested in boys. Three young men drumming on buckets outside the Plaza catch her eye—especially the dreadlocked and sweet-faced Knuck (Chris Lee). Egged on by girlfriends Jessica (Jackie Leon) and Tiny (Vanessa Ferguson), Ali awkwardly but endearingly flirts with the bucket banger. Knuck brushes her off, but Ali tracks him down to his job painting apartments in Gramercy Park, and eventually wears him down (and lies about her age). When Jersey discovers Ali and Knuck half-naked fooling around on the couch, it’s a mother-daughter throwdown. Jessica soon appears on a scaffolding to belt out the chorus to “Girl on Fire,” but the lyric takes on a different sense: Ali’s about to get burned.
A teen rom com that morphs into artistic awakening and resolves as a sentimental tribute to mothers and New York as the city of dreams, Hell’s Kitchen has a warm and spirited book by Kristoffer Diaz that nevertheless struggles to justify its songs by the second act. Apart from a brief appearance by menacing cops and a manipulative cancer twist, the story drags out its family angst as long as it can. Jersey slaps her daughter in a fit of rage over her indiscretion with Knuck, but we never doubt her maternal devotion. Davis is a narcissistic absent father unwilling to stick around when there’s a gig in San Diego. Yet even he’s painted sympathetically. Knuck is suitably appalled when he learns that Ali is underage. In a pivotal subplot, the imperious piano teacher Miss Liza Jane (Keica Lewis), turns out to be Ali’s savior. Part surrogate Black mother (Davis is Black, Jersey white), part Mr. Miyagi for the hero’s journey, Miss Liza opens Ali’s mind to Black women in music, not to mention the Civil Rights movement. This crucial relationship transforms a portrait of the artist as young pain in the ass to something more moving and inspirational.
This being half a jukebox musical (with three new numbers) very loosely based on Keys’ biography, she and Diaz occasionally subvert well-known songs for ironic tension. Tiny repeatedly interrupts the triumphal “Girl on Fire” with skeptical commentary about Ali’s hubris and reliance on a boyfriend. Davis tickles the keyboard to duet with Ali on “If I Ain’t Got You,” a song about how love is more important than riches, but he’s abandoning his daughter to chase a music gig. Otherwise, fans of the multiplatinum Grammy magnet will find their favorite tracks (artfully orchestrated by Adam Blackstone and Tom Kitt) in fine form: “Perfect Way to Die,” “Fallin’,” “No One,” and others. I’m hardly the first to find Keys’ blending of R&B, soul, hip-hop and jazz exceedingly easy on the ears. Of the new songs “The River,” “Seventeen,” and “Kaleidoscope,” the latter is the best, building to an ecstatic dance by choreographer Camille A. Brown. Her work throughout is a joyous physical expression of the stirring music.
Director Michael Greif does his best work since Dear Evan Hansen (not so dissimilar to this—misguided teen in messy romance, redeemed by self-sacrificing parent). He stages a ridiculously talented cast, topped with a star-making turn by Moon. A petite beauty with an inexhaustible voice that scales the heights of blues, pop, rap and all the colors in between, Moon looks a little like the ethereal Keys and has a similar, velvety vocal texture but she sidesteps celebrity impersonation. Bean gets to unleash her gale-force blues belt, and Lewis imbues her mournful numbers with angry dignity, dropping her voice to smoky contralto that brings shivers. Dixon is a touch underused, but his raffish charm and honeyed tenor are a delight.
In contrast to its intimate domestic scale and relatively subdued dramatic stakes, Hell’s Kitchen is slick and aggressively commercial; Keys, also the producer, has made no secret of her desire to transfer uptown. Ending with the earwormy urban jingle “Empire State of Mind” more out of fan service than anything story related, this feel-good empowerment fable hungers for a home on Broadway. And why not? Tourists are not going to nitpick where a neighborhood begins or ends. They probably won’t even visit.