I’ll say this for Hell’s Kitchen, Alicia Keys’ Broadway-bound jukeboxy musical, now Off Broadway at the Public–at least it’s not a fluffy Shakespearean comedy, like Head Over Heels (The Go-Go’s) or & Juliet (Max Martin). Stale. But girl power vehicles aren’t much fresher, and Keys and company haven’t cooked up much of interest with the autobiographical ingredients of Hell’s Kitchen.
The setting is the 90s, when that scruffy Manhattan neighborhood near Times Square was in a period of flux, from NY vice to Disney nice. The show is set largely around the building where Keys grew up, Manhattan Plaza, a complex that offers affordable housing for artists. There’s a promising introductory scene, as our 17-year-old Keys surrogate Ali (played by newcomer Maleah Joi Moon) takes the elevator down from the 42nd floor one bedroom she shares with her mom. Courtesy of Peter Nigrini’s projections each floor comes alive with the music Ali’s grown up with, opera on one floor, jazz on another, and classical piano on still another. The show promises us a symphony, and the three new songs Keys has written build a community within Ali’s world. But all too often we’re pulled into a duet, namely, her conflict with Jersey (Shoshana Bean), her demanding single mom. She’s sometimes an actor; mostly, she works two jobs, makes dinner at 6, and frets about Ali roaming around the sketchy streets. And don’t bring up dad–there’s nothing like the subject of Davis (Brandon Victor Dixon), a frequently absent musician, to send Jersey on a tear.
Where do Keys’ Grammy-winning songs, streamed billions of times across numerous albums, fit in? When Ali and Jersey aren’t batting them back to each other across the kitchen table the two other main characters in the story help with some of the lifting. There’s classical pianist Miss Liza Jane (Kecia Lewis), who, sensing Ali’s talent, gets her to take some lessons. On the street there’s Knuck (Chris Lee), a twentysomething bucket drummer who, though impressed by her talent and gumption, wants nothing to do with Ali. This changes.
A mutual decision on their part to take things further ends with Jersey in hysterics and a bad decision that is never not resonant in this country, though the topical issue is dropped as the second act begins. There’s heartache and reconciliation and more songs slotted in, and not much more than that. Book writer Kristoffer Diaz was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his Off Broadway hit The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity but his work here is hardly elaborate, getting the show in and out of the numbers without a great deal of structural support. Much of the dialogue is yelled by Jersey, the sort of mom who insists so mightily that she’s not sacrificing for her child that we can’t help but take away the opposite message. When she interrupts an audition that Davis is at she seems psychotic, as the mellow, supportive character’s only apparent sin is that he’s a gigging musician for whom Hell’s Kitchen is just an occasional port of call.
Note: it’s not too late to rework this for the Shubert next spring. And there’s time to beef up the lighting and the spindly, utilitarian production design, which are offset by Big Apple projections. The dancing won’t have you on your feet but is functionally entertaining. Fine…so how’s the music? Good! Moon was in somewhat ragged voice when I saw the show but she carries the load like a true born-for-Broadway baby and makes Ali an appealing character, one not without flaws. Whatever the problems with the material Bean and Davis are longtime Tony-nominated pros who put across their satisfyingly arranged numbers with sweeping ease. In a fourth wall break a supporting character complains about yet another standard girl-exists-for-a-guy song, which would be funnier if it weren’t sort of true. The big hits are there (“Fallin’,” “If I Ain’t Got You,” 20 in all plus the new ones) but without much tension, drama, or surprise between them a second act sameness becalms the show, and veteran director Michael Greif (Dear Evan Hansen, Rent) can’t get the lead out. Even without the Brooklyn-bound Jay-Z lyrics that referenced 560 State Street, where we both lived (at different times), “Empire State of Mind,” the closer, should leave you breathless as you head for the exit. I was more exhausted, in want of a musical meal more substantial than Hell’s Kitchen.