Review: ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ on Broadway is Alicia Keys’ lively New York coming-of-age story

NEW YORK — The music of Alicia Keys is well suited to a jukebox musical: the burst of energy that flows from hits like “Girl on Fire” are dynamic blasts perfectly suited to a show clearly drawing from Keys’ own origin story as a kid growing up in the federally subsidized artist’s haven Manhattan Plaza in Hell’s Kitchen, a transformative influence on that neighborhood and a tower that has sheltered all manner of Gotham creatives from the saxophonist Ricky Ford to the actor Timothée Chalamet.

“She’s livin’ in the world and it’s on fire,” that thrilling song goes, here calling out to the title of the new musical at the Shubert Theatre and aligned with Keys’ 17-year-old self. “Filled with catastrophe. But she knows she can fly away.”

There are many other Keys songs in “Hell’s Kitchen,” including “Fallin’,” “No One” and “If I Ain’t Got You.” But, in essence, the book writer Kristoffer Diaz took the lean lyrics of “Girl on Fire” and crafted his happily romantic and adoringly biographical plot.

Therein, Ali (Maleah Joi Moon) is the Keys alter ego who describes opening the elevators of the building onto a loving community of dancers, musicians and actors, many of them surrogate parents and mentors, including a determined if elderly pianist and teacher, named Miss Liza Jane (Kecia Lewis). It’s visiting the soulful Miss Liza and her Ellington Room piano that helps the rebellious but deep-feeling and interracial Ali fly away from fights with her supremely protective white mom, Jersey (Shoshana Bean) and the disappointments of her mostly absent but well-meaning dad Davis (Brandon Victor Dixon), a jazz musician who completes the other side of Ali’s musical education.

In much the same way that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights” was a tribute to the people of Washington Heights, so is “Hells Kitchen” a tribute to the artistic history of Manhattan Plaza, although it’s a much more personal show. Its music and lyrics were written by a hugely talented star, and it tells of her formative years and much of its appeal relies on your fascination with all of that. I suspect there will be plenty of takers for the young life of Alicia Keys, even if we’re left wondering at times what is happening on all those other floors.

There’s a great deal to enjoy here, including a phenomenal performance by Lewis, not to mention how the director Michael Greif adds his signature steely edge to what is otherwise deeply sentimental material. Better yet, the choreographer Camille A. Brown adds a high-energy movement suite that manages to be performatively exciting without feeling overly removed from how real teenagers swagger around 10th Avenue after school. The show is a visual blast even though there is nothing excessive about Robert Brill’s set. It’s just so vibrant in its zest and energy.

The said, you will get zero surprises from a book that immediately signals it will be about a mother and daughter struggling through the latter’s teenage years and eventually arriving at a mutually appreciative rapprochement alongside a spiritual and creative mentor whose predictable exit creates the requisite sense of loss and recovery in Act 2.

Keys has sparked a big Broadway tribute to her mom, a wonderful thing to be able to do, especially since that mother is so spectacularly well played by Bean. A cynical marketeer might see this as a gambit for that ever-crucial Broadway audience of mother-daughter combo, but it nonetheless feels sincere, in part because Bean is so determined to keep everything grounded.

The young actress Moon has a formidable task on her plate here and she’s a charming lead. But she doesn’t always sing in the middle of the notes of these blazing Keys songs, or at least that was the case at the performance I saw. In all fairness, it sounded like her instrument was not at its healthiest in the typically exhausting run up to opening night. So that may not be your experience.

Dixon, though, sounds just as spectacular as Davis, embodying as he does the unreliable charmer, a stereotypical musician-dad for sure. I had to fight some irritation there and elsewhere at the broadness of the narrative strokes.

But kudos to Keys for making her younger self a needy pain in the neck, otherwise known as an artistically inclined teenager.


At the Shubert Theatre, 225 W. 44th St, New York;