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Alicia Keys’s Hell’s Kitchen: Vibrant Life in the Urban Jungle

Shoshana Bean and Maleah Joi Moon star in Hell’s Kitchen, directed by Michael Greif, at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre.

(© Marc J Franklin)

I found myself unexpectedly emotional at the mere mention of sandwiches while nearing the conclusion of the show. In that moment, as the protagonist Ali discloses to her mother that she prepared sandwiches just in case her father, who was supposed to bring dinner, doesn’t arrive — which indeed happens. Ali, instead of succumbing to hunger and disappointment, demonstrates foresight by devising a backup plan, a skill essential for navigating a city filled with unreliable individuals. This marks a pivotal moment in her journey toward maturity.

In the grand scheme of this colossal new Broadway musical showcasing the music of Alicia Keys, now gracing the Shubert Theatre after its downtown premiere at the Public, this seemingly minor detail stands out amidst the clamor and commotion of one of the world’s most vibrant and bustling cities. Hell’s Kitchen excels in spotlighting the significance of small gestures amid the chaos, drawing viewers into Ali’s inner world and evoking memories of adolescent eagerness mingled with the pitfalls of growing up. Kristoffer Diaz, the book writer, deserves immense praise for laying a sturdy foundation for this towering musical.

Rather than crafting an expansive and convoluted career retrospective, Diaz focuses on a crucial chapter in the life of Ali (portrayed by the captivating Maleah Joi Moon in a remarkable Broadway debut), a 17-year-old New Yorker whose reality only loosely mirrors that of Alicia Keys. Ali resides with her mother, known simply as Jersey Girl (played by Shoshana Bean), in a modest apartment on the 42nd floor of the subsidized housing complex Manhattan Plaza. Her father, Davis (enacted by Brandon Victor Dixon), a jazz pianist, is largely absent, leaving her mother to juggle two jobs while guiding Ali toward a future free of unplanned pregnancies — a task at which her own mother had failed. When Ali becomes involved with a charming amateur percussionist named Knuck (portrayed by the intriguingly subtle Chris Lee), Jersey fears a repetition of history.

Maleah Joi Moon portrays Ali, and Chris Lee takes on the role of Knuck in Hell’s Kitchen, under the direction of Michael Greif, at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre.

(© Marc J Franklin)

Similar to a narrator reflecting on the play’s events with raw honesty and self-awareness, Ali shares her story with the audience. When Knuck accuses her of being attracted to him solely to upset her mother, Ali responds, “That’s not what I think,” before confessing to the audience, “It’s a little what I think.”

Moon shines brightly, immediately captivating us with her straightforward delivery and subtly expressive facial cues. Despite portraying a moody teenager, she emanates a beautiful and jubilant voice through her downturned lips, delivering flawless renditions of “The River,” “Kaleidoscope,” and “Work On It.” Her performance showcases a level of maturity beyond her years, effortlessly holding her own alongside seasoned performers.

Bean brings her vocal prowess to the forefront, halting the show with her rendition of “Pawn It All.” Her chemistry with Dixon is palpable, with his enchanting performances of “Not Even the King” and “If I Ain’t Got You” captivating both the characters onstage and the audience. We understand why Jersey fell for Davis, even though his love for his career often takes precedence, leading him to repeatedly break her heart in the process. While we cannot control our emotions, we can choose how to respond to them.

Kecia Lewis takes on the role of Miss Liza Jane, while Maleah Joi Moon portrays Ali in Hell’s Kitchen, directed by Michael Greif, at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre.

(© Marc J Franklin)

“Listen to that pain. Do something with it,” urges Miss Liza Jane to Ali as she gestures toward the piano bench. Kecia Lewis delivers a remarkable performance as Ali’s wise and stern piano teacher, who perseveres through her own pain, determined to impart her knowledge before it’s too late. Her rendition of “Perfect Way to Die” resonates like the alto voice of a higher power.

Keys’s music reaches new heights, thanks to the exceptional vocalists in the principal and supporting roles. Jackie Leon, in particular, dazzles with her infectious energy during “Girl on Fire.”

Every aspect of Michael Greif’s production has been elevated for its Broadway run. Robert Brill’s dynamic scaffold set towers higher, conveying the city’s vertical expanse and enabling actors to interact on balconies and fire escapes. Ali is just one of millions navigating life and love in the city that never sleeps. The skyline projections by Peter Nigrini, especially during “Empire State of Mind,” immerse the audience in a bird’s-eye view of Manhattan.

Maleah Joi Moon takes the spotlight in Hell’s Kitchen, helmed by Michael Greif, at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre.

(© Marc J Franklin)

Costume designer Dede Ayite collaborates seamlessly with Nigrini and lighting designer Natasha Katz to ensure each stage picture bursts with color and detail: evoking autumnal hues for a flashback to Tompkins Square Park, a cozy teal for the Ellington room at Manhattan Plaza, and a kaleidoscope of jewel tones during “Kaleidoscope.” The collective effort creates a whimsical rendition of 1990s New York, where music videos seem to materialize spontaneously on the streets.

The orchestrations by Tom Kitt and Adam Blackstone seamlessly integrate onstage bucket drums with the band (ably led by Lily Ling), maintaining impeccable sound balance. Gareth Owen’s sound design adds an extra layer of magic, with bass waves at times physically felt by the audience, creating an immersive experience.

Camille A. Brown’s dynamic, genre-defying choreography bursts forth from the stage, with dancers embodying Ali’s emotions and conveying her inner turmoil more effectively than words ever could. Together, they narrate a tale of a bustling city teeming with unrealized aspirations, a place that continues to evolve with or without Ali, yet welcomes her into its rhythm.

Throughout the production, the focus remains on Ali and her personal journey — a testament to Diaz’s storytelling prowess. Hell’s Kitchen serves not only as a tribute to New York City but also as a young city dweller’s quest for a meaningful adulthood. It’s not a fairy-tale ending, but a promising start.