Alicia Keys’ ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ reveals a tender Empire State of Mind
The Daily Beast
November 19, 2023
Alicia Keys’ “Hell’s Kitchen” is a rambling coming-of-age tale, enlivened by excellent music and dancing. Meanwhile, Henry Lewis makes his own kind of magic as the “Mind Mangler.”
Unsurprisingly, Hell’s Kitchen, Alicia Keys’ much-anticipated, part-autobiographical musical which opens tonight at the Public Theater (booking to Jan. 14), is marinated in her excellent music, featuring some well-known songs as well as originals she has composed for the show.
The production, directed by Michael Greif, has a through-line of sweetness that overrides a roughness of New York City living it implies but never delivers on—and spiritually never wants to dwell in. Its mean streets are not that mean, its central romantic storyline never rises to a passion that the audience feels invested in, and its family dramas are of the safe, after-school special kind. This is, at its heart, a warm bath of a musical; Camille A. Brown’s fabulous choreography supplies a welcome and impressive swagger.
Book writer Kristoffer Diaz told WNYC that Keys “did not want to do a biopic, the retrospective of an amazing artist, because she’s in the middle of her career. She’s still making hit after hit after hit. So we wanted to focus on a really specific small moment in her life. I think we did that.”
Hell’s Kitchen is a tender and quiet love letter to a city, as well as a coming-of-age tale; its warm-hearted core, rambling script, and an indulgently overlong run-time are undercut with smart one-liners and peppily wry performances. The setting is some time in Rudy Giuliani’s ’90s mayoralty-of-New-York-City era: 17-year-old Ali (an excellent and engaging Maleah Joi Moon) lives with her white mom Jersey (Shoshana Bean, loving, tough, fiercely protective) in a one-bedroom apartment on the 42nd floor of Manhattan Plaza, the Midtown West building famously then-as-now heavily populated by those working in the arts.
Jersey keeps a rigorous schedule focused on her daughter’s care; as Ali has it, “dinner every night between 6 and 6:30 before she leaves for work. The night shift. Her second job. In bed by 9.” Her dad Davis (Brandon Victor Dixon, charming, handsome, gently-not-really roguish) is absent, then suddenly present again. Ali is annoyed that Jersey doesn’t give her enough freedom; trouble at home brews after she falls for Knuck (Chris Lee), a guy in his twenties who with his friends plays drums outside Manhattan Plaza.
Knuck knows exactly how people mistakenly see him as a ne’er-do-well. In reality, he’s a hard-working, community-focused young man who just wants to get on. Jersey sees him as a gateway to Ali wasting her entire life, and so the tension of the musical is born, culminating in one of the most puzzlingly staged non-riots this critic has ever seen on stage.
You don’t feel as if you’re in or around Hell’s Kitchen. Manhattan Plaza is its own unique community and social ecosystem, and the streets—once Ali is out on them—aren’t as specifically rendered as the title of the show suggests. Indeed, she spends most of her time heading east to Gramercy Park or the Lower East Side to see Knuck. You keep waiting for the Hell’s Kitchen-ness of the title to assert or distinguish itself, but it does not.
The show also has a habit of neutralizing all points of contention; it will set up a conflict, then have everyone quickly get along, or see their errors or understand their failings, because everyone is basically understanding. Knuck is an extremely responsible, quiet guy who is mortified to learn Ali is younger than she had led him to believe; their relationship never really takes flight, and they have a most mature separation.
Davis is a non-malevolently absent parent, so when Jersey reads him the riot act, it is deserved, but he knows it, and it is forgiven by the final number. Jessica (Jackie Leon) and Tiny (Vanessa Ferguson), Ali’s friends, seem potentially interesting, spiky commentators on the action, and should have more to do.
Keys’ new and very familiar compositions all sound great (arrangements are by Keys and Tom Kitt; orchestrations are by Adam Blackstone and Tom Kitt), and the choreography is so distinctive and brilliantly executed by an exceptional company of dancers that it sharpens and enlivens any scene in which it features.
Robert Brill’s scenic design is a modular, multi-level affair to convey the high-rises and crowded streets as simply as possible; Dede Ayite’s costume design is NYC-perfect; Natasha Katz’s lighting and Peter Nigrini’s projections add extra, but unobtrusive, city scale and feel.
Ali keeps expressing her frustration, but one has to ask—with a lovely mom (who’s not even that strict), and people looking out for her, like Ray, a dream doorman played by Chad Carstarphen—why is she so pissed off? She’s intelligent and musically gifted, her perils and troubles are pretty minor, and Hell’s Kitchen doesn’t quite know how to make her repetitive complaining consequential.
When she says of her mom, “She sees me having even a little bit of fun—a little bit of a life—and right away, there she is. It’s just me, locked away in this tower, cut off from this city that’s honestly the only place I want to be,” you want to say: come on Ali, from what we can see on stage, you have it pretty great!
The presence of Kecia Lewis’ Miss Liza Jane as a regal piano teacher hiding a secret pain of her own is the dry corrective to all the overstated angst on stage— “You are here because the voices of your ancestors have requested your presence. Sit. Learn,” she tells Ali.
The musical doesn’t drill into big issues hovering at its margins (race, policing, class, betrayal, sex, love), and at all times underlines the themes of personal responsibility and care all its characters hold dear, and—if they fall short in exhibiting these qualities at different moments—looks, glances, and words soon convey that all necessary, proper and right lessons have been learned. Hell’s Kitchen is extremely, proudly wholesome.
For example, Ali’s mom soon regrets her hot-headed behavior towards Knuck, and is soon telling her daughter to make sure he is OK after his non-arrest after the non-riot, which she feels responsible for. “The hell was I thinking? I could have gotten him killed… There’s no excuse. For any of it.” Thankfully, Bean’s maternal spikiness as Jersey remains. She tells Ali to go be with Knuck, but as her daughter heads towards the door, adds sharply, “Tomorrow. Sleep here tonight, go see him tomorrow. Do not sleep with him! Please.”
If the drama is kept on an unthreatening simmer throughout, an Alicia Keys musical set in New York can only end one way, and so it is with Hell’s Kitchen—which nails its “Empire State of Mind” finale with all the stage-filled, hometown razzmatazz you’d anticipate and hope for. The one other, one assumes soon-to-be-answered question: next stop, Broadway?
Mind Mangler: A Night of Tragic Illusion
The Oliver Award-winning Henry Lewis, artistic director of Mischief—the British theater company responsible for shows like The Play That Goes Wrong and Peter Pan Goes Wrong—has another singularly silly winner in Mind Mangler: A Night of Tragic Illusion (New World Stages, booking to March 3, 2024). If in those shows disasters practical or emotional threaten to engulf grand theatrical enterprises, the same threatens Lewis’ Mind Mangler magician, but on a smaller scale—directed with jaunty wit and what is surely great care by Hannah Sharkey. (The Play That Goes Wrong, formerly on Broadway, is also at New World Stages, go see it if you haven’t seen already; booking to April 28, 2024.)
Mind Mangler, like the other shows, is far more tightly structured than its loose audience-interaction elements would suggest. We know this, and the show knows we know this, in the casting of Olivier Award-winning Jonathan Sayer as Steve, who turns out to be the Mind Mangler’s best friend—and an all-purpose audience member for some of his tricks. As Steve, the forever furrow-browed Sayer—who wrote the show with Lewis and Henry Shields—both blows up tricks, and is ultimately, surprisingly integral to keeping the show going.
How Lewis’ tricks—in mind-reading, physical disappearance—go wrong are hilarious, but many go right and elicit sighs of wonder. We laugh at how rubbish he is, and then feel for him as those tricks go wrong and his confidence and patience teeter on a knife-edge. And then there are genuinely spontaneous audience interactions, which get the public on to stage, and—when Lewis is trying to discover who has written down a secret they have never told anyone—show just how fast and funny he is as a performer and comedian. If the show is partly about how terrible the Mind Mangler is—forcing people to reveal things, he then re-reveals, for example—in the next moment he is doing something genuinely jolting and amazing.
There were many parents with children at the show I attended (one kid in the best ever glittery jacket); be cautioned, at one point noting how many pre-teen hands shot up when he asked for volunteers, Lewis said “insurance issues” meant not many kids could be invited on stage.
As in the other shows, there are veins of pathos, drama and sadness here too, in who the Mind Mangler really is off-stage, his frustrated ambition, foiled grand plans, and ultimately his friendship with Steve. There’s a lot of fun magic here, a lot of neatly staged messes, and also a glancing tale of making art and human connection. Get ready to reveal your secret—then delight in Lewis’ methods, rather than powers, of deduction as he seeks to uncover it.