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HELL’S KITCHEN - THE KID FROM THE HOOD MAKES GOOD

This review was written for “Blickpunkt Musical” the German magazine on international musical theater for which Mr. Dwyer is U.S. reviewer.


“Hell’s Kitchen - inspired by the teenage life of New York native and 16-time Grammy winner, songwriter and performer Alicia Keys, is a hybrid musical, mixing the jukebox musical genre with the fictionalized biomusical, or sem-biomusical if you will. The book incorporates some elements of Keys' real upbringing as a multi-racial teen in Hell's Kitchen, a tough New York neighborhood in the 1990s. Even if it’s not an especially dramatic story, “Hell’s Kitchen” is a thoroughly entertaining display of the Keys’ pop canon and a spirited variation on the coming of age theme.


Hell’s Kitchen, by the way, is a neighborhood made up of a mix of old brownstone townhouses, walk-ups and taller, undistinguished post World War II apartment buildings that runs west of the Times Square and the Broadway theater district. As the character Ali (smartly and sexily played by newcomer Maleah Johnson who was discovered in 2022 Disney new talent showcase) explains in an opening scene, she lives in Manhattan Plaza, which, in fact, is a 46 story apartment building of Federally subsidized housing for actors and others involved in performing arts. (Funnily, the building is just three blocks away from the St. James Theatre where “Hell’s Kitchen” is running). Indeed, Keys grew up in that building. It is also true that Keys was raised by a single White mom, who worked as a paralegal and sometime actor, and that her absent father, whom Keys didn't know, was African American.


The story, fictionalized from there, by Kristroffer Diaz posits Ali, as a rebellious, wise-ass, undirected teenager, and her mother Jersey (played to sometimes annoying effect by Shoshana Bean) as an overprotective, directive parent. Stifled by Jersey, Ali finds kindred souls in the women performing artists who populate the building who are much “cooler” and free-spirited than her mother. Rebelling against Jersey, Ali revels in street life; she falls head over heels for Knuck (Chris Lee) a Black self-described thug, older than her. (When Jersey discovers them having sex on her sofa, Knuck freaks out when he learns Ali is only 17.) Conflict between Ali and Jersey escalates. By chance, Ali wanders into the building’s music room entranced by piano music coming from it. The wise, aging pianist Miss Liza Jane (a splendid Kecia Lewis) introduces Ali to playing. Ali develops some emotional ballast to her life. A visit by her father Davis (Brandon Victor Dixon) complicates matters, but a more serious Ali finds purpose in music, and a more mature Ali bonds with Jersey.


The book by Diaz, who’s been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for drama, isn’t the strongest feature of “Hell’s Kitchen”; it’s a little cut-and-paste and cookie-cutter observant of Broadway musical melodrama conventions. Wisely, director Michel Grief, who has helmed “Hell’s Kitchen” since its Off-Broadway premiere last year at The Public Theatre (which launched “Hamilton”), paces the show fast, reflecting the city’s rhythms. Camelia A. Brown’s choreography heightens the tempo. Performed by an exceptionally large ensemble of 26, the dance incorporates moves from street dance (many of which started in New York) from breaking to boogaloo, from hip-hop to house dance. Robert Brill’s scenic design - multi-level scaffolding that suggests hi-rise apartments and streetscape both - gets brilliantly lit by Natasha Katz in an electric palette of vibrant color.


The score is all Keys, - 21 songs, her most popular hits plus three which she wrote for the show. Each one fits - some more, some less - the scene, a character’s predicament or the mood of the moment. Besides the ensemble numbers like the R&B ballad “This Girl is on Fire”, there are great solo numbers for both Jersey and Miss Liza Jane. Soshana Bean, who’s had a turn as Elepha in “Wicked”, brings down the house with the knockout R&B ballad “Pawn It All.”


But it’s Kecia Lewis, who’s been doing Broadway since she was 18 in the original cast of “Dreamgirls” in 1981, who steals the show not once but twice, with her renditions of the soulful “Perfect Way to Die” and “Authors of Forever.” In those moments she brings a gravitas to the story that eludes Diaz's book.


The predictable finale is Keys’ smash pop hit, the crowd-rousing “Empire State of Mind” , a hip-hop driven ode to New York City. If Frank Sinatra's “New York, New York" provided an older American generation with an anthem for the Big Apple, it is Keys’ “Empire” that lays claim to a new anthem for the younger, multi-racial generation that “Hell’s Kitchen” celebrates.



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