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Hell's Kitchen


Maleah Joi Moon and the company of Hell's Kitchen. (Photo: Marc J. Franklin)


Hell's Kitchen

By Deirdre Donovan

The new Alicia Keys-scored musical Hell's Kitchen is now heating up the boards at the Shubert Theatre. Inspired by the life of Alicia Keys—global megastar and winner of fifteen Grammy Awards—it focuses on several months in the life of a musically precocious seventeen-year-old girl in New York in the 1990s.

Hell's Kitchen got its stage legs during the fall 2023 season at the Public Theater. While the show received mostly favorable reviews, some critics felt it was a tad repetitive. The good news is that the Broadway version has a stronger spine, the characters' arcs are more clearly defined, and the dancing is crisper.

Primarily set in the midtown Manhattan neighborhood of Hell's Kitchen, we meet Ali (Maleah Joi Moon in a powerful Broadway debut) who yearns for art and love, and her mother Jersey (Shoshana Bean), a sometime actress who works part-time at various office jobs. They live at Manhattan Plaza, an apartment building that offers affordable housing for artists. The relationship between Ali and Jersey provides most of the conflict in the story: Ali wants her mother to stop smothering her with love and restricting her freedom; Jersey wants Ali to stay off the city streets and not make the same mistakes that she did as a teenager.

Kristoffer Diaz' book doesn't sugarcoat this coming-of-age story. He portrays Ali as a rebel and Jersey as a devoted, if overreactive, mom who's trying to prevent her daughter from becoming involved with Knuck (Chris Lee), the drummer who jams with his friends, 'Riq (Lamont Walker II) and Q (Jakeim Hart) outside Manhattan Plaza. To this end, Jersey talks with their doorman Ray (Chad Carstarphen), in hopes of having Knuck and his buddies arrested. But Ray reminds Jersey that he's not a policeman:

Jersey: "Listen: if you see any of those boys talking to my daughter, have them arrested. Hell, you have my permission to arrest her."

Ray: "I'm not a cop. I'm the doorman."

While Jersey plans to upend Ali's budding romance, Ali does what teenagers have been doing for ages: she dreams up how she and Knuck can secretly continue their relationship. Suffice it to say, things don't go smoothly for the young lovers.

The music is front and center in this show. And it's not only because of Keys' signature anthems baked into this confection. It begins with Ali giving us an elevator tour of Manhattan Plaza, with the door opening up on various floors and her giving the audience a snapshot of who lives there. Or as she puts it: There's "Mr. Gordone, 32nd floor, forever on his trumpet... and a whole string section on 27". Little wonder that Ali herself began playing a musical instrument: the piano. But, unlike what we see in the musical, Keys actually began tickling the ivories at the tender age of seven.

Kecia Lewis, Maleah Joi Moon (Photo: Marc J. Franklin)

Ali's relationship with her piano teacher and mentor, Miss Liza Jane (Kecia Lewis), is vital to the story. A kind of Nina Simone-esque figure, Miss Liza Jane is an anchor for Ali, offering the teen both musical instruction and lessons on life. Ali's bonding with Miss Liza Jane, however, leads to some resentful feelings from Ali's mother Jersey. Or as Jersey bluntly says to Miss Liza Jane in the Ellington Room:

Jersey: "Listen: I get that you and this piano are her shiny new toys and I'm just the annoying old monster who constantly reminds her to do dumb things like eat dinner, stay out of trouble, you know, maybe not get pregnant before she finishes high school. She likes you. She hates me. That's fine. But she is my daughter."

If the mother-daughter battles keep the audience leaning in, the nearly two dozen musical numbers from Keys' catalog that waft over the footlights are utterly mesmerizing. There are her mega-hits, including "Girl on Fire," "If I Ain't Got You," and "Empire State of Mind." Keys also composed some new songs for the musical, most notably "Kaleidoscope," which focuses on Ali's first meeting with her piano teacher, Miss Liza Jane.

Manhattan Plaza is a key character in the musical. Beyond providing real New York flavor to the piece, it also points out that Ali was not born with a silver spoon in her mouth. Indeed, whether we witness her arguing with her single working mother or briefly reconnecting with her often-absent dad, Ali evidently is not a child of privilege.

Maleah Joi Moon, Chris Lee, and the company of Hell's Kitchen (Photo: Marc J. Franklin)

The acting is top-notch. Maleah Joi Moon is a triple threat with titanium pipes, hip-hop dance moves, and a natural acting style. Shoshana Bean is well-cast as the mother who finds it difficult to let go of her only child. Kecia Lewis looks regal as Ali's piano teacher and delivers her speeches with ancestral wisdom. Brandon Victor Dixon, as Ali's father Davis, comes across as an ambitious artist who hasn't yet learned how to balance his art and life. Chris Lee's Knuck is spot-on as Ali's love interest, a street-smart young man who has a vulnerable side.

Camille A. Brown's dazzling choreography is the pulsating heartbeat of the musical, pushing the story forward with its hip-hop vibe. Hell's Kitchen is the fifth Broadway show that Brown has worked on, and it shows her at her very best. Little wonder she has snagged her first Tony nomination for her work on this musical, not to mention her Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle nominations.

Robert Brill's dynamic, ever shifting set captures the landscape of the city and reflects its vibrancy. Brill, who also designed the set for the show's Off-Broadway run at The Public, had to fill the larger spaces of the Shubert. And he did, with sensational results.

While cargo pants and matching tops might not be the stuff of glamor, Dede Ayite's urban outfits for the cast cut the mustard and are right in step with the 90s. Theatergoers might remember that Ayite worked on another Broadway show earlier in the season, Jaja's African Hair Braiding, and her costumes have also graced many others on the Great White Way.

As ably directed by Michael Grief, Hell's Kitchen is a musical that tells an uplifting New York story. Why not visit the Shubert and be inspired?


Hell's Kitchen

Shubert Theatre

225 W 44 St.

For tickets

Running time: 2:30 with intermission.