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‘Hell’s Kitchen’ review: Alicia Keys’ musical has fabulous songs, lacking story

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To watch “Hell’s Kitchen,” the new off-Broadway musical by Alicia Keys that opened Sunday night at the Public Theater, is to experience euphoria followed by enormous frustration over and over again. 

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How can we not feel elated being there for the star-is-born moment of actress Maleah Joi Moon, who makes an earth-shaking professional debut as 17-year-old Ali, a fictional stand-in for Keys?

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Theater review

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Two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission. At the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street. Through Jan. 14.

Moon’s sheer presence is a wow and her voice is sublime, as is that of everybody in the megawatt cast of “Hell’s Kitchen.” Keys’ hit R&B songs — as well as three original compositions — soar onstage and musically there is no better production in New York right now.

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It’s when the singing stops that this show with its sights set on Broadway is no longer on fire.

Keys has said in interviews that she and book writer Kristoffer Diaz did not wish to create the usual sprawling, paint-by-numbers bio-musical about her career, a la “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” or “MJ.” That’s fine — she’s only 42 after all.

Instead, “Hell’s Kitchen,” directed with 1990s edge by Michael Greif, is set during a few crucial weeks of Keys’ teen years living in the title Manhattan nabe where she caught the music bug, developed a crush on a (uncomfortably older) boy and fought with her hardworking mother, here called Jersey (Shoshana Bean). 

Maleah Joi Moon makes a brilliant professional debut as Ali in “Hell’s Kitchen,” the new musical by Alicia Keys.
Joan Marcus

Brilliant musicals have been built on far less sturdy ground than teenage rebellion and a hugely popular songbook. The key here was to make Ali’s personal triumphs and tragedies feel as gargantuan to us as they do to her. 

Alas, they don’t. Even in the grand scheme of sweet coming-of-age stories, the plot of “Hell’s Kitchen,” which trades the cliches of musician biographies for those of mother-and-daughter heart-warmers, is notably slight. The sedate plot amounts to a wisp of a romance with an underdeveloped house painter named Knuck (Chris Lee) and a few piano lessons.

But, oh, the songs.

Jersey (Shoshana Bean) and Ali (Maleah Joi Moon) have a touch-and-go mother-daughter relationship.
Joan Marcus

Moon gloriously sings a new number from Keys called “Kaleidoscope.” And, while it just barely fits in contextually, Bean lets Jersey’s musician ex (and Ali’s absentee father) Davis — not to mention the rapt crowd — have it with “Pawn It All” downtown at Arthur’s Tavern on Grove Street. As Davis, Brandon Victor Dixon croons “Not Even The King” with a voice that could melt Antarctica.

The heart of “Hell’s Kitchen” is Kecia Lewis as Ali’s stern piano teacher Miss Liza Jane, who shatters us at the end of Act 1 with “Perfect Way To Die.”

And the throbbing pulse is the fierce ensemble, who are full of fire when they dance Camille A. Brown’s thrilling choreography that barrels forward, suspends and releases like a subway train at rush hour.

As soon as a galvanizing number ends, though, the musical returns to sleepy, non-committal storytelling.

Ali also narrates the show and regales us about her life in Manhattan Plaza, the affordable housing unit on West 43rd Street that Keys grew up in and is home to many artists. Her structural role becomes a bigger and bigger issue because a 17-year-old makes an awfully troublesome tour guide.

The excellent ensemble is thrilling as they dance Camille A. Brown’s choreography.
Joan Marcus

Ali’s tendency is to be vague and avoidant, like this recollection after a major emotional scene in Act 2: “I really don’t remember the rest of the night.” 

Gee, thanks.

And observe how carefully she introduces us to her mother’s closest pals.

“Millie and Crystal are my mom’s best friends,” she says. “I got nothing to say to them.”

Too bad that means the audience never learns a thing about those two women, played respectively by Mariand Torres and Crystal Monee Hall. Or anybody else, for that matter.

The musical is totally unconcerned with its supporting characters. Another narrative shrug happens to Ali’s fun besties Jessica (Jackie Leon) and Tiny (Vanessa Ferguson).

We also don’t buy into Ali’s fledgling and slightly creepy relationship with older Knuck — a misunderstood sensitive type who Jersey asks the local cops to keep an eye on — because there is no compelling reason given to want them together as a couple.

Kecia Lewis plays Miss Liza Jane, Ali’s stern piano teacher.
Joan Marcus

Since most of Keys’ music does not move the plot along because it was not written with musical theater in mind, the book has a lot of heavy lifting to do. As of its premiere production, Diaz’s script is woefully out of shape.

In trying to be a paen to New York, a love story, a mother-daughter drama, an exploration of Keys’ biracial identity and an artist’s origin tale all at once, “Hell’s Kitchen” does justice to none of those aspects. The show succeeds largely as a concert.

It’s not a spoiler to reveal that the musical ends with Keys’ “Empire State of Mind” that she recorded with Jay-Z and became one of the Big Apple’s greatest anthems, right up there with John Kander and Fred Ebb’s “Theme from ‘New York, New York’.” Listening to extraordinary Moon and the rest of the cast wail out that love letter to the city is an undeniable pleasure.

But as giddy as the audience is to hear that tune and walk out humming it, by the time they reach the 8th Street train station, they’re right back to wishing they had learned more about Ali’s — and Alicia Keys’ — state of mind.

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