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Theater Review: Not everyone will be 'Fallin' over Alicia Keys' Broadway musical 'Hell's Kitchen' – Monomaxos


If you were to close Alicia Keys ’ big semi-autobiographical musical on Broadway with any of her hit songs, which would it be? Of course, it has to be “Empire State of Mind.” That’s the natural one, right? It’s also as predictable as the R train being delayed with signal problems.

“Hell’s Kitchen,” the coming-of-age musical about a 17-year-old piano prodigy named Ali, has wonderful new and old tunes by the 16-time Grammy Award winner and a talented cast, but only a sliver of a very safe story that tries to seem more consequential than it is.

It wants to be authentic and gritty — a remarkable number of swear words are used, including 19 f-bombs — for what ultimately is a portrait of a young, talented woman living on the 42nd floor of a doorman building in Manhattan who relearns to love her protective mom.

The musical that opened Saturday at the Shubert Theatre features reworks of Keys’ best-known hits: “Fallin’,” “No One,” “Girl on Fire,” “If I Ain’t Got You,” as well as several new songs, including the terrific “Kaleidoscope.”

That Keys is a knockout songwriter, there is no doubt. That playwright Kristoffer Diaz is able to make a convincing, relatable rom-com that’s also socially conscious is very much in doubt.

This is, appropriately, a woman-led show, with Maleah Joi Moon completely stunning in the lead role — a jaw-dropping vocalist who is funny, giggly, passionate and strident, a star turn. Shoshana Bean, who plays her single, spiky mom, makes her songs soar, while Kecia Lewis as a soulful piano teacher is the show’s astounding MVP.

When we meet Ali, she’s a frustrated teen who knows there’s more to life and “something’s calling me,” as she sings in the new song, “The River.” At first that’s a boy: the sweet Chris Lee, playing a house painter. There’s also reconnecting with her unreliable dad, a nicely slippery Brandon Victor Dixon. But the thing calling Ali is, of course, the grand piano in her building’s multipurpose room.

Outside this apartment building in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood — we get a clue the time is the early 1990s — are “roaches and the rats/heroin in the cracks.” But no criminality is shown — at worst some illegal krumping? — and the cops don’t actually brutalize those citizens deemed undesirable. They sort of just shoo them away. This is a sanitized New York for the M&M store tourists, despite the lyrics in Keys’ songs.

Another reason the musical fails to fully connect is that a lot of the music played onstage is fake — it’s actually the orchestra tucked into the sides making those piano scales and funky percussion. (Even the three bucket drummers onstage are mostly just pretending, which is a shame.) For a musical about a singular artist and how important music is, this feels a bit like a cheat.

Choreography by Camille A. Brown is muscular and fun using a hip-hop vocabulary, and director Michael Greif masterfully keeps things moving elegantly. But there’s — forgive me — everything but the kitchen sink thrown in here: A supposed-to-be-funny chorus of two mom friends and two Ali friends, a ghost, some mild parental abuse and a weird fixation with dinner.

The way the songs are integrated is inspired, with “Girl on Fire” hysterically interrupted by rap bars, “Fallin’” turned into a humorously seductive ballad and “No One” transformed from an achy love song to a mother-daughter anthem.

But everyone is waiting for that song about “concrete jungles” where “big lights will inspire you.” It comes right after we see a young woman snuggling on a couch, high over the city she will soon conquer. You can, too, if you just go past the doorman and follow your dreams.

___

Follow Mark Kennedy online.





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