‘Hell’s Kitchen’ Review: Alicia Keys’s Musical Finds Its Groove on Broadway

There was never much doubt that the Alicia Keys musical, “Hell’s Kitchen,” was going to be on Broadway. Keys spent 12 years developing a loosely autobiographical jukebox of her songs, incorporating such hits as “Girl on Fire,” “Fallin’” and “No One.”

The problem is that while it played to sold-out crowds, the show that premiered at the Public Theater in November had herky-jerky pacing, a few too many groan-inducing scenes, and a second act that lost sight of whatever point the story was trying to make. (In his review for The New York Times, Jesse Green pointed out that, after the intermission, the show tumbled “directly into the potholes it spent its first half so smartly avoiding.”)

Yet here we are now, with “Hell’s Kitchen” at the Shubert Theater, a few blocks from where the show’s action is set. Having seen the first version last fall, I had jitters. But “Hell’s Kitchen” has earned its place on Broadway: The revised show is thrilling from beginning to end, and easily stands out as one of the rare must-sees in a crowded season.

All this happened without a major overhaul to Michael Greif’s production, which has a book by Kristoffer Diaz. The cast and creative teams are essentially the same, and there have been judicious tweaks and trims rather than radical changes. The main differences are further refined technical elements and, most important, a subtle but crucial change in focus.

That adjustment is evident from the start, with a new line that kicks off the story: “Because I’m your mother, that’s why.” We are thrown in the middle of what is clearly a recurring argument between the Keys stand-in, 17-year-old Ali (the sensational Maleah Joi Moon), and her mother, Jersey (Shoshana Bean, in top form). Jersey has been raising her daughter on her own, without much help from Ali’s father, Davis (Brandon Victor Dixon), and is very protective of her kid. Mother and daughter live just off Times Square, in the neighborhood of the show’s title, and Jersey is fearful that her daughter will fall prey to the streets’ many dangers — we are in the late 1990s, and Jersey is eager for Mayor Giuliani to “clean all of this right up.”

Naturally, these parental concerns translate as constant nagging to Ali, who, after her mom’s conversation-closer, takes us on a guided tour of her life at Manhattan Plaza, a Midtown oasis that has been offering federally subsidized housing to artists since 1977 (and where Keys spent her own childhood). The complex and its surrounding streets are Ali’s domain, which she surveys with her besties, Jessica (Jackie Leon) and Tiny (Vanessa Ferguson).

Square in Ali’s sights is Knuck (Chris Lee), a handsome dude in his early 20s who drums on buckets outside her building. Much of Act I consists of Ali’s dogged pursuit of Knuck (who’s appropriately horrified when he eventually discovers her age).

Jersey predictably goes ballistic when she learns about the romance — this is not a spoiler, as the story builds up to that conflagration. The plotline involving Knuck has receded into the background but is not really missed, because the show’s core relationship is now more clearly the one between Ali and Jersey. “Hell’s Kitchen” remains a coming-of-age tale, but its focus has been sharpened: If the first act is Ali looking to connect with Knuck, the second is Ali finding her mother, and herself. It is a huge improvement, and functions as a binding element for all of the story’s elements.

One of them is Miss Liza Jane (Kecia Lewis), a neighbor who becomes Ali’s spiritual mentor and teaches her to play the piano. (Though in real life, Keys started playing around the age of 7, and was drafted by both Columbia Records and Columbia University in her teens.) Miss Liza Jane makes more sense here as a proxy mother figure, even if it’s odd that the ever-curious Ali hadn’t heard of someone the doorman, Ray (Chad Carstarphen), describes as Manhattan Plaza’s “heart, soul and conscience.” Such quibbles don’t stand a chance against Lewis’s titanic vocals, especially on “Authors of Forever.” Lewis mostly sings in a burnished mezzo, but she can go up and down octaves faster than the Manhattan Plaza elevator Ali loves so much.

In most musicals, Lewis would be the vocal standout despite her supporting status, but the competition is stiff in “Hell’s Kitchen.” Moon, Bean and Dixon all excel in different styles but never feel at odds with one another or with the score: Moon draws from R&B and soul, Bean is a traditional Broadway belter and Dixon brings swinging jazzy syncopation to a remodeled “Fallin.’” (The arrangements are by Keys and the music supervisor Adam Blackstone.)

That one of Keys’s biggest hits, “Fallin,’” is reintroduced this way testifies to the smarts in evidence here. Dixon’s suave hijacking of that song quickly establishes how much his character banks on his charm. It’s also a wise move not to steer all of the immediately recognizable tunes toward Ali. She does get the show’s one new song, “Kaleidoscope,” but she often shares it (as she does in a slightly tweaked “You Don’t Know My Name” with Jessica and Tiny).

In any case, no matter who performs them, the songs are lifted by Gareth Owen’s sound design. The volume is turned up high, but the mix is crisp and well balanced. This is par for the course for an exacting production that also features beautifully warm lighting by Natasha Katz, a functional-yet-elegant multitiered scenic design by Robert Brill and uncompromisingly ’90s costumes by Dede Ayite (oh, those Timberlands, FUBU jackets and mom jeans).

The most exciting complement to the music is the choreography by Camille A. Brown, a Tony Award nominee for “Choir Boy” and “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf.” The movement pulses with life and is fully integrated into the show’s overall aesthetics, but it’s the attention to detail that’s memorable.

As is standard for Broadway these days, the dancing is ensemble-based, but Brown and her troupe brilliantly find the individual in the group, and each one exists, like the dancer blowing gum bubbles in the middle of a number. There is, always, a sense of the person within a community, as with Ali growing up in a village known as Manhattan Plaza. That she’s back in the old neighborhood feels just right.

Hell’s Kitchen
At the Shubert Theater, Manhattan; hellskitchen.com. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.

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