By Tulis McCall
Seems as though there are three sets of people in the world. The first group knows all about Alicia Keys and has been following her for decades. The second group wouldn’t know her if they fell over her. Third group is somewhere in the middle. They know the name Alicia Keys and may have heard a couple of tunes, but they have not connected the tunes to the performer.
“Hell’s Kitchen”, now at the Public Theater, is going to be a smorgasbord for the first group of folks as it is chockablock full of Keys’ musical oeuvre. The second group won’t buy a ticket (which is okay because the show is sold out through its extended date of January 14, 2024.) The third group is going to be surprised, as I was, at the depth and vibrance of some of Keys’ writing as well as the off-the-charts artistry shown by these performers.
The story is loosely based on Keys’ life as a teenager. Loosely as in we see her first playing the piano at the age of 17 when she actually started at the age of 7. Facts are conflated so that the story can be located. Ali (Maleah Joi Moon in an impressive professional stage debut) is 17 and about to burst. As her mother Jersey (Shoshanna Bean) sings “She’s seventeen and her brain just don’t work.” Ali is filled not only with hormones but with the belief that something is calling to her. Something beyond the “one-bedroom apartment on the forty-second floor of a forty-four story building on Forty-Third Street … right in the heart of the neighborhood some people know as Hell’s Kitchen” Welcome to Manhattan Plaza.
Jersey is a single mom who had Ali when she herself was 18 and is scared to death that the protective bubble she created for Ali is about to be dismantled. Bean brings just the right of maternal grit to this role. Her friends from the building – neighbors Crystal (Crystal Monee Hall), Millie (Mariand Torres) and the doorman Ray (Chad Carstarphen) have both Jersey and Ali’s backs and offer calming advice that is more or less ignored – which doesn’t stop them from trying.
Ali’s posse – Tiny (Vanessa Ferguson) and Jessica (Jackie Leon) are her go-to buddies who also offer calming advice as they watch their friend make a move on what will turn out to be her first true love, Knuck (Chris Lee, who is the essence of “still waters run deep”). He and his buds Riq (Lamont Walker) and Q (Jakeim Hart) are street drummers, hanging out with their paint buckets and drumsticks – just trying to get along. It is the 1990’s however, and Giuliani is cracking down using his broken window theory to “clean up the streets” so these guys are automatic targets.
When Ali crosses the line to be with Knuck the cops are called at Jersey’s blanket request that people keep an eye on Ali. There is a ruckus and Ali runs off in a rage that leaves her nowhere to go (certainly not home) and she ends up in the Ellington Room of the building where she meets the woman who will change her life. Miss Liza Jane (Kecia Lewis) enters the room like a queen. She sits and play the piano. As she leaves Miss Liza Jane tells Ali, “I practice here every day, including Sundays. Twice on Mondays. Same time, here in The Ellington Room. My time is valuable. My time is limited. You may sit. You may watch. You may not speak. You may listen. You may learn.”
This will become Ali’s church – when she is not hanging with her new beau, or her peeps or doing schoolwork. When there is another situation and the cops take Knuck in, Ali knows it is because of her mother. It is to the church that Ali goes. She is filled with so much anger she cannot touch the piano. Miss Liza Jane tells her, “I will not allow you to let the pain win,” and she sings “Perfect Way To Die.”
Lewis is nothing short of brilliant, and this song stops the show. It begins as a quiet memory and slowly unravels into an anthem of rage. While this song feels out of place in terms of the story, as it reveals itself the depth of Keys’ insight is finally realized. This is not a pop-song musical. It is a specific moment not only in the life of this 17-year-old but in all of our lives. Pay attention. Keys is.
The second act zips along. Miss Liza Jane is given more opportunity to gift us with song and she does so in royal fashion. Brandon Victor Dixon shows up as the charming, seductive man (with a great set of pipes) who still loves Jersey and adores his daughter Ali but just cannot get it together to be a responsible human being. In the end Ali and Jersey are left alone together as the saying goes. People have come and gone. The neighborhood is changing. They are each other’s life rafts and they know it. The road is filled with potholes but so what?
It is assumed that the destination for this show is Broadway. If that is the case this reviewer hopes that rewrites will be on the table. As it is, the story and the musical numbers do not lineup. It often feels like the appearance of a song is checking off a box rather than moving the story along. This is partially due to the fact that the numbers are not always distinguishable from one another, and lyrics are often lost in the uptempo and group numbers. In addition, Camille A. Brown’s choreography, while intense, also feels detached. The dancers have little to do with the other characters. We don’t see them as part of the community that Ali wants us to see. They appear and vanish many times over for no apparent reason.
On a purely knit-picking note – it would be helpful to have the musical numbers listed in the program together with the names of the characters who sing them. We lose many of the members of this fine ensemble as well as the specific musical numbers because they are not identified in connection to one another. Head shots also welcomed.