By Brittany Crowell

We all wish we could live in Alicia Keys’ Hell’s Kitchen.  The city she’s built at the Shubert Theater on 44th Street is so full of vibrancy and movement that she has the audience believing that one block down is a color-filled city of possibility.  Her love of the city and its impact on her is palpable in the semi autobiographical musical running now on Broadway.

However, Hell’s Kitchen is not your typical jukebox musical.  While featuring songs from Keys’ repertoire, they are weaved seamlessly by book writer Kristoffer Diaz into the story of a young girl finding her love, her passion, her talent, and her way in the big city.  Focusing on seventeen-year-old Ali, the story follows her search for something larger than herself through love, music, friendship, and mentorship in the big city.  Juxtaposed to Ali is her mother, Jersey’s journey to let go and let Ali fall down, mis-step, and discover for herself.  While the two are at odds, circumstances eventually draw them closer and closer to each other leading to a beautiful and emotional rendition of “No One” sung between mother and daughter.

Shoshana Bean as Jersey & Maleah Joi Moon as Ali; photo by Marc J. Franklin

The cast for the piece SHINES, confidently holding Keys’ powerhouse vocals and bringing endless energy and emotion.  Shoshana Bean kills as headstrong mom Jersey and brings the house down with anger anthem “Pawn it All.”   Kecia Lewis showcases incredible range and depth as the matriarch and mentor Miss Liza Jane. Brandon Victor Dixon shines as half-beat dad Davis and ever-so-playfully reinvents Keys’ hits “Fallin’” and “If I Ain’t Got You.”

In addition to the show’s veteran superstars, I had the pleasure of witnessing a night full of understudies who really stepped up to the plate.  Gianna Harris stepped into the role of Ali and brought such gumption, brightness and joy to the role, I couldn’t help but smile ear to ear watching her.  I also got to see Lamont Walker II step on as Knuck and Jade Milan and Oscar Whitney Jr as Tiny and Riq respectively, hitting the show beats like weathered sticks in the hands of a professional drummer.

I’d be remiss not to mention the absolute highlight of the evening and star of the show which, for me, was the choreography of Camille A. Brown.  Brown brought the energy of Keys’ music to a whole new level, adding fun and heartstring-pulling movement to anything from the upbeat “The Gospel” to the funereal “Hallelujah / Like Water.”  Each movement choreographed is so intentional and so beautifully performed by the ensemble that it is almost akin to an emotional sign language, showcasing in beautiful movement the wrought emotions of the vocals, or celebratory and playful nature of what the singer is feeling.  I was particularly moved by the performance during Knock’s “Not Even the King” which teetered between dance and gesture in a beautiful and emotionally insightful way.

The stage is set by Robert Brill’s very urban scenic design, inspired by windowpanes and fire escapes and is colored and aged by Dede Ayite’s vibrant costume design transporting us to the late 90s.  Lighting, sound, and projections by Natasha Katz, Gareth Owen, and Peter Nigrini help to move us between community rehearsal rooms, one bedroom apartments, Gramarcy park scaffolding, and the colorful streets of the city.

Hell’s Kitchen is a love letter to growing up in New York.  Diaz and Keys, with the help of Brown’s choreography and expert direction by Michael Grief, celebrate the stories of those inhabiting stories upon stories within the high rises; it is a joyful song to the “concrete jungle where dreams are made of” and how lovely it must be for Keys to see “her name on [this] Marquee found down on Broadway.”

 

HELL’S KITCHEN – Music and lyrics by Alicia Keys; book by Kristoffer Diaz; directed by Michael Greif

FEATURING: Shoshana Bean; Brandon Victor Dixon; Kecia Lewis; Chris Lee; Chad Carstarphen; Reid Clarke; Chloe David; Nico DeJesus; Timothy L. Edwards; Desmond Sean Ellington; Dacia Farha; Vanessa Ferguson; David Guzman; Gianna Harris; Jakeim Hart; Takia  Hopson; Jackie Leon; Raechelle Manalo; Jade Milan; Onyxx Noel; Susan Oliveras; Sarah Parker; Aaron Nicholas Patterson; William Roberson; Niki Saludez; Nyseli Vega; Donna Vivino; Lamont Walker II; Rema Webb; Oscar Whiteny Jr. and introducing Maleah Joi Moon.

Set by Robert Brill; costumes by Dede Ayite; lighting by Natasha Katz; cound by Gareth Owen; projections by Peter Nigrini; hair and wig by Mia Neal; makeup by Michael Clifton; associate direction by Monet; associate choreography by Rickey Tripp; music consultation by Tom Kitt; orchestrations by Tom Kitt and Adam Blackstone; music direction by Lily Ling.  Produced by AK Worldwide Media, Inc.; Aaron Lustbader and The Public Theater: Oscar Eustis, artistic director; Patrick Willingham, executive director.www.hellskitchen.com