As monikers go, “Hell’s Kitchen” is much sexier than “Manhattan Plaza” — which is probably why Alicia Keys’ new stage musical, with a book by Kristoffer Diaz, goes for the much hotter title. “Hell’s Kitchen” opened Sunday at the Public Theater.
The musical is reportedly semi-autobiographical in its details of the singer-songwriter’s life in her late teens, growing up with a single mother in the Manhattan Plaza apartment complex, located in the southern end of Hell’s Kitchen between 42nd and 43rd 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 that were built in the 1970s to house upper-middle-class tenants.
When renters with that kind of money didn’t pony up to live on the doorstep of sordid Times Square, Manhattan Plaza turned itself into a haven for people in the performing arts, devoting a full 70% of its nearly 1,700 apartments at reduced/regulated rent to such artists. The elderly and neighborhood residents continue to make up the remainder of its occupants.
Early in “Hell’s Kitchen,” the 17-year-old heroine Ali (Maleah Joi Moon) sings a lovely what-I-want song titled “The River,” in which she laments being stuck on the top of one of the Manhattan Plaza towers with her mother, Jersey (Shoshana Bean). Her only solace is the apartment’s view of the Hudson River, a source of inspiration that symbolizes Ali’s desire to be released and swept away.
“The River” delivers because it is only one of three songs written especially for this musical. It’s what’s called a book song, in that it establishes a character and moves the story forward. 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 replicate the many floors of the Manhattan Plaza, each delivering a different musical motif to embody the artists living there.
When Ali isn’t being trapped way upstairs, she meets a group of young street musicians who bang on bucket drums and run into trouble from a bunch of tight-ass white people, including her mother, who want to sleep (or read a book or watch porn in peace) and end up calling the police to stop the noise. Excuse me, the music.
Disclaimer: I live in Hell’s Kitchen a few blocks north of Manhattan Plaza, so I had a little problem cheering for this supposedly put-upon character named Ali who has an unobstructed view of the Hudson River — but they are “dirty windows,” she complains — and who adamantly supports those noisy drummers. I also had to wonder how her single mother gained entry to Manhattan Plaza with its reduced/regulated rents.
A former actor, Jersey tells friends that she can’t join them on the stage anymore because she has two jobs, one of which is a night job. I have to assume Jersey’s night job doesn’t mean she’s a hoofer, a stagehand or an usher at one of the nearby Broadway theaters. (Heaven forbid, even theatrical agents and journalists live at Manhattan Plaza!)
Even to this day, the Manhattan Plaza stands as a collection of ivory towers in this gritty neighborhood, with all the meanings that the words “towers” and “ivory” convey, including the word “white.” Yet, Keys’ songs and Diaz’s book never explore the special status of Ali’s residence at Manhattan Plaza.
The teenager blithely blows off that advantage by telling us, “best thing about seeing [the doorman] is: once you walk past him and get through these doors, it’s like all 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 is 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 place of employ, where he paints the exterior of buildings atop a ladder. (Robert Brill’s set beautifully utilizes scaffolding both to suggest the cityscape and house the orchestra.)
As played by Moon, Ali is all cocky and assured in her desire to seduce the remote Knuck; however, after a while, that quest begins to resemble Sylvester Stallone’s stalking of Talia Shire in the early scenes of “Rocky.” At a certain point in “Hell’s Kitchen,” you may find yourself having to suppress the urge to yell at the stage, “Would you two screw so we can get this story started?”
It’s an admirably slim, self-effacing story: an overly protective mother, after being seduced by a lover (Brandon Victor Dixon in great singing voice) is abandoned and left with a child, Ali, whom she doesn’t want to repeat Mom’s mistake. Most of the songs in “Hell’s Kitchen” are Keys standards. It’s nice to hear them sung so well — the exception being the angry “Pawn It All,” which Shoshana Bean caterwauls to such an extreme that it surpasses Leslie Rodriguez Kritzler’s parody of a caterwauling diva in the recently opened “Spamalot” revival.
“Pawn It All” and the nearly 20 other Keys songs from her many albums are not book songs. They effectively, but merely, encapsulate an emotion or a state of mind — which means the narrative, which is already slight, stops cold so characters can express what they’re feeling. Greif’s direction beefs up these moments by enlisting choreographer Camille A. Brown to overpopulate the stage with dancers who stomp, wave, thrust, swivel and perform other exercises.
Several of these choreographed moments are even delivered while a solo or duet is being performed, as if wonderful vocals weren’t enough. It’s a theatrical access that is already a cliché at the stuffy old Metropolitan Opera, where, ever since HD performances have been broadcast to cinemas around the world, directors feel the need to give audiences something visual to keep them from refilling their boxes of Jujyfruits.
Diaz pumps up the drama in a couple of ways that ultimately feel false. He ends Act One 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 nod to Black Lives Matter is powerful, but provides more weight than this musical can sustain, especially when it is revealed in Act Two that Knuck was not really arrested, just detained, 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. That’s typical of most 17-year-olds: Their “true love” tends not to be forever.
The other Big Faux Drama comes when Ali overhears a pianist at Manhattan Plaza. She’s a woman named Miss Liza Jane (Kecia Lewis), who is based on Keys’ real piano teacher, the famed and very much alive Margaret Pine, wife of character actor Larry Pine. As played by Lewis with oppressive grandeur, Miss Liza Jane resembles that old MGM trope of an émigré ballet or voice instructor (often played by Maria Ouspenskaya) who lives atop Carnegie Hall and whose extreme condescension is supposed to convey her artistic rigor. In “Hell’s Kitchen,” this character is merely a pompous bore, although Miss Liza Jane’s technique for teaching piano is almost as delightfully absurd as the way Johann Strauss (Fernand Gravey) composes music in 1938’s camp classic “The Great Waltz.”
Because Act Two needs some drama, Diaz has decided not only to make Ali’s piano teacher Black but have her pass away after a long illness. It’s a deus ex-machina moment that comes as a surprise to Ali, who believes old people live forever. That’s not typical of most 17-year-olds.