Ah, the jukebox musical. The beloved choice of wealthy Broadway producers seeking to profit quickly by bringing a cherished collection of songs to the stage and drawing large audiences night after night. With a reliance on popular hits linked together with minimal dialogue, these compilation shows can also come across as haphazard and lacking in cleverness, leading New York Times critic Jesse Green to dub them “the cockroach of musicals”.
Hell’s Kitchen, Alicia Keys’s live-wire theatrical adaptation of her own hit list, puts the rest of the genre to shame. Over a dozen years in the making, the show, which makes its off-Broadway debut at the Public Theater (where Hamilton had its original run), is no rewarmed songbook. It’s a surprisingly loose-limbed and rousing celebration of love, music and a pre-TikTokified New York City, directed by Michael Greif (Rent, Dear Evan Hansen) and overseen by Keys, who had a hand in everything from the fly-girl dance routines to the casting of understudies. A recent preview performance had members of the audience losing their minds, raising their arms in the air mid-song and wiping tears from their eyes between numbers.
Keys, the Grammy-winning and classically trained R&B star, loosely based the story on her Manhattan childhood. The erratically present father, powerful and possessive mother, and life-changing piano teacher are all there (played, respectively, by Brandon Victor Dixon, Shoshana Bean and Kecia Lewis, who together have enough star power to light up a constellation).
The main focus of the production is Maleah Joi Moon, a 21-year-old newcomer with a radiant voice who portrays the 17-year-old character Ali. Moon, originally from New Jersey, resides in Manhattan Plaza with her mother, a subsidized apartment complex in the gritty midtown area that inspired the show’s title. Moon expertly embodies the struggles of being 17, donning the popular 90s fashion of baggy pants, boxer shorts, and Timberland boots, and showcasing a range of emotions from childlike excitement to teenage angst.
Similar to Persephone, our main character is stuck in a situation where she cannot break away from her mother, but also cannot resist the temptation to stray. She is on the brink of a tumultuous stage of her life, and the play portrays the struggles of this late adolescent period.
Jersey, a talkative individual who gave up her creative aspirations long ago, still manages to provide dinner for her family every evening at 6pm before going to work. Meanwhile, Ali, who is left to her own devices, discovers new interests such as playing the piano and developing a crush on an older boy named Knuck (played by Chris Lee), who identifies as a “thug” and has a captivating singing voice that could attract a flock of Disney birds. One of the most noteworthy aspects of this show is its acceptance of opposing elements. There are no clear-cut villains or princesses. Ali’s struggle is multifaceted: she yearns to hold onto her mother while also wanting to break free and find her own path.
The Public’s production of Hell’s Kitchen is rumored to be the most expensive ever, featuring a talented group of dancers led by renowned choreographer Camille A Brown. The set design perfectly captures the vibrant energy of pre-millennial Manhattan’s bohemian culture. Wall projections created by Peter Nigrini subtly enhance the overall atmosphere of the play, from the city streets to the elevators that transport the characters in Ali’s 40-story world. Ali herself is like a modern-day Eloise at the Plaza, observant and engaged in the narratives surrounding her.
Furthermore, there is no shortage of popular songs by Alicia Keys being featured (along with some fresh compositions). The lyrics and beats have been updated to fit the narrative, and none of the tracks feel forced or out of place. Every song serves as an opportunity to fully immerse oneself in intense emotions. This project is filled with melancholy and agony, and the artists’ renditions breathe new life into beloved songs such as Fallin’, Empire State of Mind, and Girl on Fire.
The tickets for the run have been completely purchased, but it’s difficult to believe that there won’t be another chance to watch it. If this performance doesn’t make it to Broadway, we should all give up.