Even in the Golden Age of musical theater, shows died so often after intermission that critics gave the disease a name. The “second act problems” came in many forms: unleashed songs, desperate cuts, illogical crises, hasty solutions. However, all of those symptoms of the second act arose from the same underlying condition: the ambitions of the first act.
So it’s not really surprising that a hugely ambitious new musical like “Hell’s Kitchen,” the semi-autobiographical jukebox built on the life and catalog of Alicia Keys, disappoints after the mid-show break, falling straight into the potholes in those who spent their first half. avoiding so cleverly. The surprising thing about this promising show, which opened at the Public Theater on Sunday with the obvious intention of moving to Broadway, is how exciting it is until then.
Surprising to me, anyway. I find that jukeboxes (especially biographical ones, like “Motown” and “MJ”) almost inevitably add to the ordinary difficulties of musical construction with difficulties unique to their provenance. The involvement of the original artists (or their estates) leads to historical sweetening. The rush to hit all the highlights results in a carefully curated resume. The catalog retreads, written for a different reason, fail to move the action forward. And since those songs are the selling point of the show, they end up highlighting the story.
But Keys, working with playwright Kristoffer Diaz and director Michael Greif, navigates most of those obstacles in the show’s first hour, setting up the story with remarkable verve and efficiency. In neat succession, it introduces the main characters (17-year-old Ali and her single mother, Jersey), the main setting (the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Midtown Manhattan in the late 1990s), the parameters of the plot (Ali’s thirst for love and art) and a looming source of conflict (Mom).
At the same time, he floods us with music to establish the worlds he takes us to, far beyond the R&B and pop for which Keys is best known. In a wonderful elevator sequence, Ali encounters opera, jazz, merengue, and classical piano as she descends from the 42nd-floor one-bedroom apartment she shares with Jersey, a casual actor juggling two jobs. (The building, Manhattan Plaza, offers affordable housing for artists.) Then, as Ali reaches the street, a gigantic blast of sound envelops her; It seems all of New York is singing, playing and, in Camille A. Brown’s thrilling contextual choreography, dancing.
We’re only a few minutes into the show and his armor is completely in place. We know this will be a story of love and abandonment between mother and daughter, as Jersey (Shoshana Bean, warm and pyrotechnic) tries to keep Ali fed and safe. Although race is not explicitly an issue between them, Jersey is white and Ali is biracial, and Ali (Maleah Joi Moon in a sensational debut) will gradually move away from her mother’s smothering by the broader group of people she knows.
One is the classical pianist, Miss Liza Jane (the masterful Kecia Lewis), who will demand that Ali take lessons from her, although in reality Keys began studying at age 7, not 17. And on the street, to the sound of the song from 2003. After “You Don’t Know My Name,” Ali flirts with a drummer named Knuck (Chris Lee, sweet as pie) even though he’s in his twenties. He will resist…at first.
And so, across 11 songs, the first act does the job of ambitious first acts everywhere: expanding the show’s horizon to the broader world in which the action takes place (it’s not a fair world for young New Yorkers blacks) and deepen our Knowledge of the main characters through the conflict. Also humor: Diaz – whose hilarious professional wrestling play, “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize – saves the story from too much seriousness. Credit must also be given to Greif, whose consistent handling of tone and tension manages to dramatize a story that could easily have been too internal.
Together with Keys they also solve, or at least delay, many of the jukebox problems. By keeping a very narrow focus on just a few weeks of Ali’s life, “Hell’s Kitchen” chooses the possibility of dramatic depth over the highlights of her career. There’s not much sugar-coating, either: Keys seems quite willing to present her ambitious surrogate as a hormonal teenager immune to common sense, and 21-year-old Moon is precociously smart and brave in delivering that complex portrait.
Most importantly, Keys’ songs, even hits like “Fallin’,” “If I Ain’t Got You” and “No One,” fit into the story (and into the mouths of a variety of characters) without much of a stretch. handling. If they do not do so, the situation is effectively recognized. When Ali finally spends the night with Knuck, just in time, just before the various stories merge into one terrible event at the end of the first act, Ali’s friend Tiny (Vanessa Ferguson) becomes angry, because she’s supposed to This is an unapologetically woman-centered story. “Is the world hers because she now has a man?” she complains, interrupting the 2012 hit “Girl on Fire,” here repurposed as an upbeat “I’m on top of the world” song. “That’s what we’re doing?”
Unfortunately, “is that what we’re doing?” That’s how I felt the moment the second act began. As if the creators have run out of time for finesse (although Keys and Diaz have been working on “Hell’s Kitchen” for more than a decade), their wit turns into sermons as the story, especially that of Jersey , it becomes blurry. Her strained relationship with Ali’s father, here a jazz pianist but really a flight attendant, bears the characteristic signs of dramaturgical whiplash. (On the other hand, he is played by Brandon Victor Dixon, a human aphrodisiac, vocally and otherwise.) An argument between Jersey and Miss Liza Jane feels similarly contrived, until it resolves in an obvious twist of pathos. And despite Bean’s skill, Jersey’s love for her daughter, the core of the show, is lost in the attempt to complicate it.
The songs of the second act follow suit; It’s no coincidence that the three new ones Keys wrote for the production, all good, are at the top of the show. And while well-structured musicals typically have far fewer songs in the second half than the first to make way for the complexities of the plot’s resolution, there are a whopping 14 here, ending indulgently if inevitably with the New York anthem from 2009’s “Empire State of Mind.” .” As a result, “Hell’s Kitchen” almost became what she initially tried to avoid: a hit dump.
But since those hits are hits for a reason, they’re still enjoyable to listen to. The singing, arrangements and orchestrations (by various hands, including Adam Blackstone, Tom Kitt, Dominic Follacaro and Keys herself) are exciting, if strangely unbalanced in Gareth Owen’s sound design. The fire escape sets (by Robert Brill), expressive projections (by Peter Nigrini), saturated lighting (by Natasha Katz) and often hilarious costumes (by Dede Ayite) are all ready for Broadway.
I hope “Hell’s Kitchen” is too. Of course, many musicals make the transfer without ever resolving the problems of the first act, much less those of the second. It would be a shame here. Although not perfectly told, Ali’s discovery that art is love, with or without the boy, is too rich not to reach a wider audience, and a million more girls on fire.
Through January 14 at the Public Theater in Manhattan; publictheater.org. Duration: 2 hours 30 minutes.