Even in the golden age of musical theatre, shows commonly died after intermission, leading critics to come up with a name for the disease. “The Problem of Act Two” is presented in many ways: unhinged songs, desperate cuts, illogical crises, and hasty resolutions. However, all of the symptoms of the second act arose from the same basic condition: the ambitions of the first act.
So it’s really no surprise that there’s a new musical so ambitious as “Hell’s Kitchen“, the semi-autobiographical jukebox based on the life and catalog of Alicia Keys, disappoints after the show’s mid-show intermission, falling straight into the pits it spent its first half cleverly avoiding. What’s surprising about this promising show, which opened at the Public Theater on Sunday with intent The obvious move to Broadway is how exciting it was even then.
Surprise for me, anyway. I find that jukeboxes – especially biographical ones, like “Motown“And “MJ” – inevitably adds to the normal difficulties of musical construction unique difficulties in terms of its provenance. The involvement of original artists (or their estates) leads to historical sugar-coating. The rush to hit all the high points leads to a carefully curated CV. Catalog revamps , written for a different reason, fail to move the action forward, and since those songs are the show’s selling point, they end up shaking up the story.
But Keyes, working with playwright Christopher Diaz and director Michael Greif, overcomes most of those pitfalls in the show’s first hour, shaping the story with verve and remarkable efficiency. In elegant succession, the film introduces the main characters (17-year-old Ali and her single mother Jersey), the primary setting (the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of midtown Manhattan in the late 1990s), and the parameters of the plot (Ali’s thirst for love). and art) and the source of the impending conflict (my mother).
At the same time, he immerses us in music to ground the worlds he takes us into, beyond the R&B and pop that Keys is known for. In a gorgeous elevator sequence, Ali encounters opera, jazz, merengue and classical piano as she descends from the one-bedroom, 42nd-floor apartment she shares with Jersey, an actor who at one point juggles two jobs. (The building, Manhattan Plaza, provides affordable housing for artists.) Then, when Ali reaches the street, a huge rush of sound surrounds her; It seems like all of New York City is singing, playing, and dancing in Camille A.’s exciting, contextual choreography. Brown.
Only a few minutes into the show and the engine was fully in place. We know this will be a mother-daughter love story, as Jersey (Shoshana Penn, warm and fiery) tries to keep Ali fed and safe. Although race isn’t an obvious issue between them, Jersey is white and Ali is biracial, and Ali (Maliah Joy Moon in a rousing debut) will gradually be drawn away from her mother’s stifling by the broader group of people she encounters.
One is a classical pianist, Miss Lisa Jane (the wonderful Kesia Lewis), who will demand that Ali take lessons from her – although in reality Keyes began studying at the age of seven, not seventeen. And out on the street, to the tune of 2003. Press “You Don’t Know My Name,” and Ali flirts with a drummer named Nock (Chris Lee, cute as pie) even though he’s in his mid-twenties. He will resist – at first.
And so, over the course of 11 songs, Act One makes ambitious firsts all around: expanding the show’s horizon into the larger world in which the events take place (not a fair world for young black New Yorkers) and deepening our culture. Find out the main characters through conflict. And it’s humorous, too: Diaz—whose pro-wrestling romp “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad’s God” was a Pulitzer Prize finalist—saves the story from too much seriousness. So does Creedy Greif, whose steady management of tone and tension coaxes drama out of a story that could otherwise be too domestic.
Along with the Keys, they also solve, or at least delay, many of the jukebox problems. By focusing so narrowly on just a few weeks of Ali’s life, “Hell’s Kitchen” chooses the potential for dramatic depth over career highlights. And it’s not a lot of sugarcoating: Keys seems perfectly poised to present her aspirational stance as a hormonal teenager immune to common sense — and Munn, 21, is very smart and fearless in presenting that complex portrayal.
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 obfuscation. If they don’t, the situation will effectively be acknowledged. When Ali finally spends the night with Nok — just in time, before the various story lines merge in a shocking event at the end of the first act — Ali’s friend Tiny (Vanessa Ferguson) is upset, because this is supposed to come as a surprise. An unapologetically woman-centric story. “The world is hers because she got a man now?” she complains, interrupting 2012’s “Girl on Fire,” which is repurposed here as an upbeat “I’m on top of the world” song. “This is what we do?”
Unfortunately, “is this what we do?” This is how I felt the moment the second semester started. As if the creators no longer have time for ingenuity — even though Keyes and Diaz have been working on “Hell’s Kitchen” for more than a decade — his wit turns to lectures as the story, especially Jersey’s, becomes blurry. Her strained relationship with Ali’s father, here a jazz pianist though in reality a flight attendant, bears the distinctive signs of dramatic injury. (On the other hand, he’s played by Brandon Victor Dixon, a human aphrodisiac, vocally and otherwise.) The argument between Jersey and Miss Lisa Jane seems similarly contrived, until it’s resolved in an apparent twist of pathos. And despite Bean’s skill, Jersey’s love for her daughter, the heart of the show, gets lost in the attempt to complicate it.
The second act songs follow suit. It’s no coincidence that the three new ones written by Keyes Productions, all of which are good, are at the top of the show. And although well-structured musicals typically have far fewer songs in the second half than the first to make room for the complexities of plot resolution, there are 14 songs that end indulgently, if unavoidably, with the 2009 New York anthem ” “Empire State of Mind”. As a result, “Hell’s Kitchen” almost becomes what it initially tried to avoid: a garbage dump.
But since those hits are hits for a reason, there’s still joy in hearing them. The singing (under the direction of Dominic Fallacaro), arrangements and orchestrations (by various hands including Adam Blackstone, Tom Kitt 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 Negrini), saturated lighting (by Natasha Katz) and often ridiculous costumes (by Dede Aite) are all Broadway-ready.
I hope “Hell’s Kitchen” is like that too. Of course, many musicals transfer without resolving the problems of the first act, let alone the second act. That would be a shame here. Although Ali’s discovery that art is love, with or without a man, is too rich to reach a wider audience, and a million other girls are on fire, it’s not perfectly told.
Through January 14 at the Public Theater in Manhattan; publictheater.org. Show duration: 2 hours and 30 minutes.
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