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

There was by no means a lot doubt that the Alicia Keys musical, “Hell’s Kitchen,” was going to be on Broadway. Keys spent 12 years creating a loosely autobiographical jukebox of her songs, incorporating such hits as “Lady on Hearth,” “Fallin’” and “No One.”

The issue is that whereas it performed to sold-out crowds, the present that premiered on the Public Theater in November had herky-jerky pacing, a couple of too many groan-inducing scenes, and a second act that overlooked no matter level the story was attempting to make. (In his evaluate for The New York Instances, Jesse Inexperienced identified that, after the intermission, the present tumbled “straight into the potholes it spent its first half so neatly avoiding.”)

But right here we are actually, with “Hell’s Kitchen” on the Shubert Theater, a couple of blocks from the place the present’s motion is about. Having seen the primary model final fall, I had jitters. However “Hell’s Kitchen” has earned its place on Broadway: The revised present is thrilling from starting to finish, and simply stands out as one of many uncommon must-sees in a crowded season.

All this occurred with no main overhaul to Michael Greif’s manufacturing, which has a e book by Kristoffer Diaz. The solid and artistic groups are basically the identical, and there have been considered tweaks and trims moderately than radical adjustments. The principle variations are additional refined technical components and, most necessary, a refined however essential change in focus.

That adjustment is obvious from the beginning, with a brand new line that kicks off the story: “As a result of I’m your mom, that’s why.” We’re thrown in the midst of what’s clearly a recurring argument between the Keys stand-in, 17-year-old Ali (the sensational Maleah Joi Moon), and her mom, Jersey (Shoshana Bean, in prime kind). Jersey has been elevating her daughter on her personal, with out a lot assist from Ali’s father, Davis (Brandon Victor Dixon), and may be very protecting of her child. Mom and daughter dwell simply off Instances Sq., within the neighborhood of the present’s title, and Jersey is fearful that her daughter will fall prey to the streets’ many risks — we’re within the late Nineties, and Jersey is keen for Mayor Giuliani to “clear all of this proper up.”

Naturally, these parental issues translate as fixed nagging to Ali, who, after her mother’s conversation-closer, takes us on a guided tour of her life at Manhattan Plaza, a Midtown oasis that has been providing federally sponsored housing to artists since 1977 (and the place Keys spent her personal childhood). The advanced and its surrounding streets are Ali’s area, which she surveys together with her besties, Jessica (Jackie Leon) and Tiny (Vanessa Ferguson).

Sq. in Ali’s sights is Knuck (Chris Lee), a good-looking dude in his early 20s who drums on buckets exterior her constructing. A lot of Act I consists of Ali’s dogged pursuit of Knuck (who’s appropriately horrified when he ultimately discovers her age).

Jersey predictably goes ballistic when she learns in regards to the romance — this isn’t a spoiler, because the story builds as much as that conflagration. The plotline involving Knuck has receded into the background however just isn’t actually missed, as a result of the present’s core relationship is now extra clearly the one between Ali and Jersey. “Hell’s Kitchen” stays a coming-of-age story, however its focus has been sharpened: If the primary act is Ali seeking to join with Knuck, the second is Ali discovering her mom, and herself. It’s a large enchancment, and capabilities as a binding aspect for the entire story’s components.

One in every of them is Miss Liza Jane (Kecia Lewis), a neighbor who turns into Ali’s non secular mentor and teaches her to play the piano. (Although in actual life, Keys began taking part in across the age of seven, and was drafted by each Columbia Information and Columbia College in her teenagers.) Miss Liza Jane makes extra sense right here as a proxy mom determine, even when it’s odd that the ever-curious Ali hadn’t heard of somebody the doorman, Ray (Chad Carstarphen), describes as Manhattan Plaza’s “coronary heart, soul and conscience.” Such quibbles don’t stand an opportunity in opposition to Lewis’s titanic vocals, particularly on “Authors of Eternally.” Lewis largely sings in a burnished mezzo, however she will be able to go up and down octaves quicker than the Manhattan Plaza elevator Ali loves a lot.

In most musicals, Lewis can be the vocal standout regardless of her supporting standing, however the competitors is stiff in “Hell’s Kitchen.” Moon, Bean and Dixon all excel in numerous types however by no means really feel at odds with each other or with the rating: Moon attracts from R&B and soul, Bean is a conventional Broadway belter and Dixon brings swinging jazzy syncopation to a reworked “Fallin.’” (The preparations are by Keys and the music supervisor Adam Blackstone.)

That one in all Keys’s greatest hits, “Fallin,’” is reintroduced this fashion testifies to the smarts in proof right here. Dixon’s suave hijacking of that track shortly establishes how a lot his character banks on his appeal. It’s additionally a clever transfer to not steer the entire instantly recognizable tunes towards Ali. She does get the present’s one new track, “Kaleidoscope,” however she typically shares it (as she does in a barely tweaked “You Don’t Know My Title” with Jessica and Tiny).

In any case, regardless of who performs them, the songs are lifted by Gareth Owen’s sound design. The quantity is turned up excessive, however the combine is crisp and properly balanced. That is par for the course for an exacting manufacturing that additionally options fantastically heat lighting by Natasha Katz, a functional-yet-elegant multitiered scenic design by Robert Brill and uncompromisingly ’90s costumes by Dede Ayite (oh, these Timberlands, FUBU jackets and mother denims).

Probably the most thrilling complement to the music is the choreography by Camille A. Brown, a Tony Award nominee for “Choir Boy” and “For Coloured Women Who Have Thought-about Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf.” The motion pulses with life and is absolutely built-in into the present’s general aesthetics, but it surely’s the eye to element that’s memorable.

As is normal for Broadway lately, the dancing is ensemble-based, however Brown and her troupe brilliantly discover the person within the group, and each exists, just like the dancer blowing gum bubbles in the midst of a quantity. There may be, at all times, a way of the individual inside a group, as with Ali rising up in a village generally known as Manhattan Plaza. That she’s again within the previous neighborhood feels excellent.

Hell’s Kitchen
On the Shubert Theater, Manhattan; Working time: 2 hours half-hour.

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