“Hell's Kitchen” review: The Alicia Keys Broadway musical is a rousing delight

Lively choreography and powerhouse vocal performances of familiar Keys favorites overcome a so-so story.

There’s a reason many Broadway purists turn their noses up at even the slightest whiff of a jukebox musical. The productions often feel a mere step away from Vegas-style celebrity impersonation, with perfunctory plotlines in place to merely move the story from one well-known hit song to the next while also carefully glossing over anything too unseemly from the subject’s past. Wildly original, they do not tend to be. But then again, in a season that has three book-to-film-to-stage adaptations (The Notebook, The Outsiders, Water for Elephants) playing within a roughly 50-foot radius, perhaps complaints regarding a lack of fresh thinking should not be contained to any one particular corner of the Great White Way.

Which brings us to Hell’s Kitchen. Loosely inspired by the 1990s teenage years of superstar Alicia Keys (who wrote all the music and lyrics, while Kristoffer Diaz handled the book, and Michael Greif the direction), the coming-of-age musical is now following up its sold-out run at New York City’s Public Theater with a Times Square showcase at the Shubert Theatre.

<p>Marc J. Franklin</p> The cast of 'Hell's Kitchen' on Broadway

Marc J. Franklin

The cast of 'Hell's Kitchen' on Broadway

While the venue may have changed, the story — and the main cast — remain the same. And even those who did not see the musical’s previous incarnation may get a certain sense of teen angst déjà vu. Seventeen-year-old Ali (Maleah Joi Moon), like so many young protagonists, is caught between an over-protective parent (in this case, Shoshana Bean as single mother Jersey) and all that excitement waiting outside the front door (here, the never-not-exciting New York City).

There’s a boy, naturally (Chris Lee as Knuck). And, as you can guess, the mother disapproves, judging him not by his character but the potential danger he represents to her daughter. (She also really, really does not like his name.) Plus, no teen saga is complete without a sage-like mentor offering the youngster direction through another path, and sure enough — PRESTO! — a piano shows up with Kecia Lewis’ Miss Liza Jane sitting behind it. That’s about as deep as it gets.

<p>Marc J Franklin</p> Kecia Lewis and Maleah Joi Moon in 'Hell's Kitchen'

Marc J Franklin

Kecia Lewis and Maleah Joi Moon in 'Hell's Kitchen'

What is so remarkable about Hell’s Kitchen, however, is that a story so familiar can also somehow feel so fresh. Right from the outset, both the neighborhood and stage come alive — bursting with energy as characters bound about in their FUBU shirts and saggy, baggy jeans, popping poses and banging buckets. The Hell’s Kitchen ensemble is working hard, interpreting the music through motion that feels like the bustling city streets outside Ali’s Manhattan Plaza building. If modern, hyped-up dance is your thing, they got you, thanks to scene-stealing choreography by Camille A. Brown.

<p>Marc J Franklin</p> Maleah Joi Moon and the cast of 'Hell's Kitchen'

Marc J Franklin

Maleah Joi Moon and the cast of 'Hell's Kitchen'

Also setting Hell’s Kitchen apart from many other jukebox musicals telling an artist’s life story is that many of the tunes here from the Keys catalog are not actually performed by Ali. “Fallin’”— reinterpreted here as a delicious jazzy number with changing time signatures between Jersey and Ali’s absentee father Davis (an effortlessly smooth Brandon Victor Dixon) — may disappoint some hoping to hear a more faithful rendition of the mega-hit, but it at least represents a rare big swing. And Bean absolutely brings the house down with bluesy pissed-off grandeur on “Pawn It All.”  In addition to the parade of sing-along hits, there are three new Keys tracks over the course of the first act, most notably the catchy, up-tempo head bobber “Kaleidoscope.”

<p>Marc J Franklin</p> Shoshana Bean and Maleah Joi Moon in 'Hell's Kitchen'

Marc J Franklin

Shoshana Bean and Maleah Joi Moon in 'Hell's Kitchen'

As for the cast doing all that singing, Lee is engaging as the weary and misunderstood Knuck, while Lewis is commanding as the no-nonsense Miss Liza Jane, informing soon-to-be-student Ali, “You may sit. You may watch. You may not speak. You may listen. You may learn.” And Bean is an absolute powerhouse — exuding equal measures of frustration and love while singing about the daily dilemma of raising a headstrong teen. Her voice is a weapon, and she knows just when to fire.

As the young Ali, Maleah Joi Moon is a certified star. She can take her pitch to places most people can only dream about and is a truly engaging narrator — an often overlooked virtue on the stage. The actress nails the seemingly contradictory teenage mix of unwarranted confidence and super-awkward romantic game. Moon also has killer comedic timing.

<p>Marc J Franklin</p> Maleah Joi Moon and Chris Lee in 'Hell's Kitchen'

Marc J Franklin

Maleah Joi Moon and Chris Lee in 'Hell's Kitchen'

Hell's Kitchen has tweaked its second act since the initial run at the Public, moving a few songs around and stripping out “When It’s All Over.” Speaking of which, it still ends with a rousing performance of “Empire State of Mind," because of course it does. Like much of the entire musical, it’s a move you can see coming from a million pianos away, but honestly, what’s the point of concluding a performance based on Alicia Keys growing up in New York City any other way? It’s a feel-good ending to a show that may be short on story originality, but will leave you feeling good. B+

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