“Hell’s Kitchen”, playwright Christopher DiazThe new musical with songs from Alicia Keys, starts at a table. 17-year-old Ali (a magnetic Maleah Joi Moon, making her professional debut), has dinner with her mother, Jersey (Shoshana Bean), at her Hell’s Kitchen apartment every night at the same time. It’s a routine that Jersey insists on to keep Ali safe from the dangers of New York City in the 1990s. But to Ali, her one-bedroom apartment on the 42nd floor feels like a cage. She longs to hang out with her friends, listen to music, and flirt with a drum major named Knuck (Chris Lee), who uses the courtyard of her Manhattan Plaza building as a stage.
Wearing baggy jeans, Timberland boots, Tommy Hilfiger crop tops and gold chains, Ali speaks directly to the audience about her feelings, dreams and desires. She welcomes viewers into the beautiful and chaotic teenage world of her as if she were opening her diary. Without an outlet to express herself, she comments on her growing frustrations with Jersey’s overbearing attitude as she works up the courage to approach Knuck.
It’s difficult to unlock the experience of being a 17-year-old girl, but under the direction of Michael Greif, “Hell’s Kitchen” does just that. Loosely based on the personal experiences of Grammy Award-winning Keys, the musical, now premiering at the Public Theater, captures Ali’s ever-evolving emotions and his quest for freedom. Despite his mother’s rules, Ali rebels against them, staying out late, knowing Knuck intimately, and fighting Jersey at every turn.
Because her estranged father, Davis (Brandon Victor Dixon), is a professional musician, Ali reluctantly learns to play the piano from her stern neighbor, Miss Lisa Jane (Kecia Lewis). But she soon discovers that music could be the best way to convey her feelings.
Featuring absolutely powerful vocals from the cast and songs written by Keys with orchestrations and arrangements by Emmy and Grammy winner Adam Blackstone, “Hell’s Kitchen” goes beyond Ali’s teenage experiences. The play also shows Jersey’s perspective as a single mother determined to get her daughter to make different decisions than her own. Although Keys’ iconic music is used throughout, Diaz and Blackstone don’t randomly distribute the tunes over two acts. Instead, songs like “You Don’t Know My Name” and “Fallin” emerge with surprising characters at unexpected moments.
The scenery, although simple, captures the essence of New York City. Designer Robert Brill uses black steel rectangles to show the vertical structures and linear lines of the city. Projected images are used in the background to orient the audience to a specific neighborhood or location. The minimalism of the set and Ali’s sincere narration make viewers feel like they are part of the production and not just spectators.
In addition to Moon and Bean’s sensational vocal range, “Hell’s Kitchen” illustrates just how tender relationships between mother and daughter can be. It also reflects the underlying problems of New York City in the ’90s, while demonstrating the impact of loss, absent fathers, and over-policing on communities of color. Since the play lasts 2 hours and 30 minutes (including an intermission), these songs are often drawn out and sometimes feel clichéd, bordering on the cheesy. However, the absolute dynamism of the cast prevents the show from falling into pure melodrama.
Still, “Hell’s Kitchen” is a musical par excellence. Some of the dancing is a little too elaborate at times, especially during tender songs like “Hallelujah/Like Water” or sensual moments like “Un-thinkable (I’m Ready).” While these segments could have shined with singing alone, the talent of the ensemble is undeniable. With stunning harmonies and the infusion of pianists, guitarists and drummers on stage, the show feels like watching a glorious tapestry come together.
At the end of the day, “Hell’s Kitchen” is more than a story about a young girl’s first love story. Ali’s relationship with Knuck is a central component, but as one of her friends points out, having a man is not the only important element of the narrative. Instead, “Hell’s Kitchen” is a sparkling story that pays tribute to New York, to that beautiful and heartbreaking transition between childhood and womanhood and to the women who hold our hands at all times.
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