Nicknamed “Hell’s Kitchen,” it’s a lot sexier than “Manhattan Plaza” — which is probably why Alicia Keys’ new stage musical, with a book by Kristoffer Diaz, has the much hotter title. “Hell’s Kitchen” opened Sunday at the Public Theater.
The musical is reportedly semi-autobiographical in its details about the singer-songwriter’s life in her late teens, when she was 42 and was growing up with a single mother in the Manhattan Plaza apartment complex on the south end of Hell’s Kitchennd and 43approx streets. Nothing could be more different from the old tenements of Hell’s Kitchen, once home to Irish immigrants, than the relatively new complex of 44-story apartment towers built in the 1970s to house upper-middle class tenants.
When tenants with so much money were unwilling to live on the doorstep of seedy Times Square, Manhattan Plaza transformed itself into a haven for people involved in the performing arts, putting fully 70% of its nearly 1,700 apartments into discounted/regulated apartments Conditions available to rent to such artists. The rest of the residents continue to consist of older people and local residents.
At the beginning of “Hell’s Kitchen,” 17-year-old heroine Ali (Maleah Joi Moon) sings a beautiful “what I want” song called “The River” in which she complains about being on top of one of the Manhattans Plaza is stuck in Towers with her mother Jersey (Shoshana Bean). Her only consolation is the view from the apartment of the Hudson River, a source of inspiration that symbolizes Ali’s desire to be released and swept away.
“The River” is convincing because it is only one of three songs written specifically for this musical. It is a so-called book song that establishes a character and advances the story. Director Michael Greif takes full advantage of the moment. He prepares us for “The River” by establishing this production’s most effective visual leitmotif: Natasha Katz’s lighting and Peter Nigrini’s projections recreate the many floors of Manhattan Plaza, each providing a different musical motif to accompany those there to embody living artists.
When Ali isn’t stuck upstairs, she meets a group of young buskers who beat bucket drums and get into trouble because a group of white people, including her mother, want to sleep (or read a book or watch porn in peace) and on End call the police to stop the noise. Sorry, the music.
Disclaimer: I live in Hell’s Kitchen, a few blocks north of Manhattan Plaza, so I had a bit of a problem rooting for this supposedly fake character named Ali who has an unobstructed view of the Hudson River – but they are “dirty windows”, as she says, complains – and who relentlessly supports these loud drummers. I also had to wonder how her single mother got access to Manhattan Plaza with the reduced/regulated rents.
Jersey, a former actress, tells friends that she can no longer come on stage with them because she works two jobs, one of which is a night job. I have to assume that Jersey’s night job doesn’t mean she works as a goon, stagehand, or usher at one of the nearby Broadway theaters. (God forbid, even theatrical agents and journalists live in Manhattan Plaza!)
To this day, Manhattan Plaza remains a collection of ivory towers in this gloomy district, with all the meanings that the words “towers” and “ivory” convey, including the word “white.” Yet Keys’ songs and Diaz’s book never address the special status of Ali’s residence at Manhattan Plaza.
The teenager blithely nullifies this advantage by telling us, “The best thing about seeing.” [the doorman] “As soon as you walk past him and walk through those doors, it’s like the whole of New York City is singing to you.” Like so many 17-year-olds, Ali doesn’t see her privilege because she is privileged.
Keys and Diaz instead focus on their young heroine’s burgeoning sexual desire and her hot pursuit of one of the street drummers, Knuck (Chris Lee). It’s refreshing to see the tables turned: here the girl aggressively pursues the boy, who remains the elusive love object. Ali even follows Knuck to his workplace, where he uses a ladder to paint the exterior of buildings. (Robert Brill’s set beautifully uses scaffolding to both suggest the cityscape and accommodate the orchestra.)
Played by Moon, Ali is completely cocky and confident in her desire to seduce the distant Knuck. But after a while, this search begins to resemble Sylvester Stallone’s pursuit of Talia Shire in the early scenes of Rocky. At some point in “Hell’s Kitchen,” you may have to suppress the urge to scream onstage, “Would you both give a shit so we can start the story?”
It’s an admirably slim, understated story: An overprotective mother, after being seduced by a lover (Brandon Victor Nixon in a great singing voice), is abandoned and left with a child, Ali, who she doesn’t want, for Mom’s fault repeated . Most of the songs in “Hell’s Kitchen” are Keys standards. It’s nice to hear them sung so well – except for the angry “Pawn It All,” which Shoshana Bean wails to such an extreme that it surpasses Leslie Rodriguez Kritzler’s parody of a crooning diva in the recently opened “Spamalot” revival.
“Pawn It All” and the nearly 20 other Keys songs from their many albums are not book songs. They effectively, but merely, embody an emotion or state of mind – meaning the narrative, already thin, stops being cold to allow the characters to express what they’re feeling. Greif’s direction amplifies these moments by enlisting choreographer Camille A. Brown to fill the stage with dancers stomping, waving, thrusting, pivoting and performing other exercises.
Some of these choreographed moments are even performed during a solo or duet, as if wonderful singing wasn’t enough. It’s a theatrical approach that’s already a cliché at the stuffy old Metropolitan Opera, where, since HD performances have been broadcast in cinemas around the world, directors have felt the need to give audiences something visual to keep them from to refill his boxes with Jujyfruits.
Diaz ratchets up the drama in several ways that ultimately feel false. He ends the first act of this two-and-a-half-hour musical with the arrest of Knuck, which leads to the delivery of the Keys’ 2020 single “Perfect Way to Die.” The Black Lives Matter reference is powerful, but carries more weight than this musical can handle, especially when it’s revealed in the second act that Knuck wasn’t actually arrested, just locked up, after having sex with the underage Ali. The romance also fizzles out when Knuck leaves New York to take a better job in another city. This is typical for most 17-year-olds: their “true love” usually doesn’t last forever.
The other big faux-drama comes when Ali overhears a pianist in the Manhattan Plaza. She is a woman named Miss Liza Jane (Kecia Lewis), who is based on Keys’ real-life piano teacher, the famous and very lively Margaret Pine, wife of character actor Larry Pine. As played with depressing grandeur by Lewis, Miss Liza Jane resembles the old MGM image of an émigré ballet or singing teacher (often played by Olga Ouspenskaya) living in Carnegie Hall, whose extreme condescension is meant to express her artistic rigor. In “Hell’s Kitchen,” that character is merely a pompous bore, although Miss Liza Jane’s technique for teaching piano is almost as deliciously absurd as the way Johann Strauss (Fernand Gravey) plays music in the camp classic “The Great Waltz.” “composed in 1938.
Since the second act needs some drama, Diaz decided to not only make Ali’s piano teacher black, but also have her die after a long illness. It’s a deus ex machina moment that comes as a surprise to Ali, who believes that old people live forever. This is not typical for most 17 year olds.