'Hell's Kitchen' review — Alicia Keys's soulful songs take the stage

Read our review of Hell's Kitchen off Broadway, a new musical based on the life of and with songs by Grammy Award winner Alicia Keys, at The Public Theater.

Gillian Russo
Gillian Russo

Leave it to Alicia Keys, the writer of evocative songs like "Fallin'" and "If I Ain't Got You," which make everyday emotions feel like momentous revelations, to make a New York local see Midtown anew. I'll admit, after living on both the north and south outskirts of Hell's Kitchen for a combined four years, that particular part of the city began to feel a little less fiery, the streets no longer making me feel brand-new, but same-old.

But as portrayed in Hell's Kitchen, under Michael Greif's direction, Keys's home neighborhood is a living, pulsing, vibrant soundscape. In this new musical, loosely based on Keys's upbringing, we see the world as a 17-year-old Ali (Maleah Joi Moon, in a sensational professional debut) does: alive with irresistible art, from the bucket drummers on the street to the opera singers on her building's 17th floor to the dance instructor on the 27th. (Camille A. Brown lends invaluable support with her impassioned choreography.)

A young woman with enough energy, verve, and attitude as the rest of Hell's Kitchen combined, Ali sees her city as a place of opportunity. Mainly for romance at first (her eye is firmly fixed on one of those drummers), but eventually, for her own future as an artist, thanks to an elderly neighbor who introduces her to the piano. In contrast, her mother, Jersey, sees the world as something to protect Ali from — she made her own teenage mistakes with the pianist who became Ali's father, then left.

Though Hell's Kitchen takes plenty of liberties with Keys's life, to the credit of her and book writer Kristoffer Diaz, it's not a highlight reel. The creators don't sugarcoat the low notes of Keys's adolesence: her younger self's willfulness to a fault, the illness of her mentor, and gravest of all, the overpolicing of her community, filled with artists of color.

Diaz’s book barely has time between songs to capture all the story’s nuances and themes. But oh, the songs. Keys's music, including three excellent new tunes alongside her many existing hits, soars on stage, especially thanks to a cast of ace vocalists: Moon, the belting badass Shoshana Bean (as Jersey), the silk-voiced Brandon Victor Dixon (as Ali's father, Davis), and the heart-wrenching Kecia Lewis (as Ali's piano teacher, Miss Liza Jane).

Even if "Empire State of Mind" is the gratuitous, if necessary for broad audience appeal, choice for the final number (I'd have loved to hear Keys's scrappy, city-themed "Underdog" instead), it feels earned. Keys and her team reveal that "concrete jungle where dreams are made of" isn't fully a cliche — it's a reflection of an optimistic, ambitious young person's view of the world, imperfections and all. Even we jaded locals can perhaps learn from that perspective.

Hell's Kitchen is at The Public Theater through January 14. Get Hell's Kitchen tickets on New York Theatre Guide.

Photo credit: The cast of Hell's Kitchen at The Public Theater. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

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