“Hell’s Kitchen” uses Alicia Keys’ music to tell her adolescent story — sort of

The company of Hell’s Kitchen on Broadway dancing on stage
The company of Hell’s Kitchen on Broadway (Photo by Marc J. Franklin)
Maleah Joi Moon as “Ali,” Chris Lee as “Knuck” and the company of Hell’s Kitchen on Broadway dancing on stage.
Maleah Joi Moon as “Ali,” Chris Lee as “Knuck” and the company of Hell’s Kitchen on Broadway (Photo by Marc J. Franklin)

Multi-hyphenate pop star / author / composer Alicia Keys has mined her considerable song catalog to create, with librettist Kristoffer Diaz, Hell’s Kitchen. It’s a fictionalized account of her teen years growing up in the midtown New York neighborhood of the  title, and tells a story of teen rebelliousness and a discovery of the power of music.

We first meet 17-year-old Ali (Gianna Harris, substituting for Maleah Joi Moon) and her single mother Jersey (Shoshana Bean) at their apartment in the subsidized artist’s residence known as Manhattan Plaza. Jersey is trying to protect Ali from making the mistakes she made at her age, to the point of forbidding her to go out into the neighborhood streets. Ali resents Jersey’s over-protectiveness and tries to stretch her boundaries with the help of her school friends, her mother’s friends, and the building’s doorman Ray (Chad Carstarphen). A trio of bucket drummers led by Knuck (Chris Lee) performing impromptu outside the building signals Jersey to send Ali back inside to the safety of the apartment — but not before Ali crushes on Knuck.

Following a spat with Jersey, Ali goes into the building’s communal area, the Ellington Room, which houses a grand piano. It is there she hears the playing of Miss Liza Jane (Kecia Lewis), a gifted pianist, and starts to take lessons from the regal older woman. Ali’s talent, a gift from her estranged musician father Davis (Brandon Victor Dixon), soon impresses Miss Liza Jane, and the lessons soon expand to include black musical heritage, self-knowledge, self-control, and self-esteem.

Ali pursues Knuck, conjuring up a romanticized version of him as a gangsta thug. He refutes her assumptions, leading to a more honest relationship. But Ali’s failure to tell Knuck her true age leads to trouble.

Gianna Harris gives an outstanding performance as Ali, capturing her exuberance and her willfulness. However, I found myself disliking Ali from the beginning of the show. As written, she’s an annoying brat, a spoiled 17-year-old, rude, self-centered, and spiteful when crossed. She won’t listen to anyone about anything and jumps to conclusions based on appearances. She relies on deception to get her own way. And no matter how much musical talent Ali is supposed to have, she’s not mature enough — in age or experience — for it to excuse her attitude.

As for the rest of the cast, Shoshana Bean and Kecia Lewis are standouts as the two strong women shaping Ali’s life. Bean scores with numbers that express Jersey’s frustrations with her daughter, and her delivery always shows her deep love from within for her only child. The remarkable Kecia Lewis as Miss Liza Jane hits hard with “Perfect Way to Die”, a song used to teach Ali to channel her emotions into and through her music. Lewis is a regal presence in Hell’s Kitchen, an ancestor looking back across the long line of those who came before and imparting wisdom for those who will come after. Other strong performances come from Chris Lee’s proud, determined Knuck; Brandon Victor Dixon’s footloose and noncommittal Davis; Chad Carstarphen’s genial Ray; and comedy from Jersey’s friends Millie and Crystal (Nyseli Vega and Badia Farha, subbing for Rema Webb) and Ali’s friends Tiny and Jessica (Vanessa Ferfuson and Jackie Leon).

Michael Grief’s direction and Camille A. Brown’s choreography bring the neighborhood to energetic, colorful life, although Brown’s ensemble work at times makes the dancers’ “street moves” a little too pretty and synchronized to be real. Robert Brill’s set design, lit by Natasha Katz with projections by Peter Nigrini, and the costumes of Dede Ayite give the look and feel of New York in the 1990’s.  Lily Ling’s 15 piece orchestra does justice to Keys’ eclectic score.

Hell’s Kitchen works best as a fable based on Alicia Keys’ teen years and a showcase for her music, including some of her iconic songs such as “Girl on Fire”, “Un-thinkable (I’m Ready)”, “If I Ain’t Got You”, and “Empire State of Mind”. It’s a lively, youthful show that just may bring back memories of being 17 yourself. It’s a fun show wrapped around a kernel of a coming-of-age story. If you are a fan of Alicia Keys, you owe it to yourself to visit Hell’s Kitchen!

Hell’s Kitchen is presented at the Shubert Theatre, 225 West 44th Street in New York. For more information or to purchase tickets, go to hellskitchen.com.

Allen Neuner
Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first Broadway play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. Allen has been accepted into the American Theatre Critics Association, a professional organization of theatre journalists. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.