Even within the Golden Age of musical theater, exhibits so generally died after intermission that critics got here up with a reputation for the illness. “Second act bother” offered in some ways: unmoored songs, determined slicing, illogical crises, hasty workarounds. But all these second act signs arose from the identical underlying situation: first act ambitions.
So it’s probably not stunning that an enormously formidable new musical like “Hell’s Kitchen,” the semi-autobiographical jukebox constructed on the life and catalog of Alicia Keys, disappoints after the mid-show break, tumbling instantly into the potholes it spent its first half so neatly avoiding. What’s stunning on this promising present, which opened on the Public Theater on Sunday with the apparent intention of transferring to Broadway, is how thrilling it’s till then.
Shocking to me, anyway. I discover that jukeboxes — particularly biographical ones, like “Motown” and “MJ” — nearly inevitably add to the abnormal difficulties of musical building with difficulties distinctive to their provenance. The involvement of the unique artists (or their estates) results in historic sugarcoating. A rush to hit all of the excessive factors ends in a cherry-picked résumé. The catalog retreads, written for a special purpose, fail to maneuver the motion ahead. And since these songs are the present’s promoting level, they wind up wagging the story.
However Keys, working with the playwright Kristoffer Diaz and the director Michael Greif, steps round most of these pitfalls within the present’s first hour, establishing the story with notable verve and effectivity. In neat succession it introduces the primary characters (17-year-old Ali and her single mom, Jersey), the first setting (the Midtown Manhattan neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen within the late Nineteen Nineties), the parameters of the plot (Ali’s thirst for love and artwork) and an imminent supply of battle (Mother).
On the similar time, it floods us with music to determine the worlds it’s taking us into, properly past the R&B and pop that Keys is finest identified for. In a wonderful elevator sequence, Ali encounters opera, jazz, merengue and classical piano as she descends from the one-bedroom Forty second-floor condo she shares with Jersey, a someday actor juggling two jobs. (The constructing, Manhattan Plaza, affords reasonably priced housing for artists.) Then, when Ali reaches the road, an enormous rush of sound enfolds her; all of New York, it appears, is singing, taking part in and, in Camille A. Brown’s excitingly contextual choreography, dancing.
We’re just a few minutes into the present and its armature is absolutely in place. We all know that that is going to be a mother-daughter love-and-letting-go story, as Jersey (Shoshana Bean, heat and pyrotechnic) tries to maintain Ali fed and protected. Although race isn’t explicitly a difficulty between them, Jersey is white and Ali is biracial, and Ali (Maleah Joi Moon in a sensational debut) will progressively be drawn away from her mom’s smothering by the broader group of individuals she encounters.
One is the classical pianist, Miss Liza Jane (the magisterial Kecia Lewis), who will demand that Ali take classes from her — although in fact Keys began finding out at 7, not 17. And out on the road, to the strains of the 2003 hit “You Don’t Know My Title,” Ali will flirt with a bucket drummer named Knuck (Chris Lee, candy as pie) despite the fact that he’s in his mid-20s. He’ll resist — at first.
And so, over the course of 11 songs, the primary act does the work of formidable first acts all over the place: increasing the present’s horizon to the bigger world wherein the motion takes place (not a good world for younger Black New Yorkers) and deepening our data of the primary characters by battle. Additionally humor: Diaz — whose hilarious skilled wrestling play, “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,” was a Pulitzer Prize finalist — saves the story from an excessive amount of earnestness. Credit score Greif, too, whose regular administration of tone and stress coaxes drama from a story that might simply have been too inside.
Along with Keys in addition they remedy, or not less than delay, lots of the jukebox issues. By conserving a really slim give attention to only a few weeks in Ali’s life, “Hell’s Kitchen” chooses the potential for dramatic depth over profession highlights. Neither is there a lot sugarcoating: Keys appears fairly keen to current her formidable stand-in as a hormonal teenager proof against widespread sense — and Moon, 21, is precociously intelligent and fearless in delivering that advanced portrait.
Most essential, Keys’s songs, even hits like “Fallin’,” “If I Ain’t Obtained You” and “No One,” match into the story (and into the mouths of quite a lot of characters) with out an excessive amount of jimmying. In the event that they don’t, the state of affairs is acknowledged successfully. When Ali lastly does spend the night time with Knuck — proper on time, simply earlier than the assorted story traces merge in a dreadful occasion on the finish of the primary act — Ali’s good friend Tiny (Vanessa Ferguson) is miffed, for that is imagined to be an unapologetically woman-centered story. “The world is hers ’trigger she bought a person now?” she complains, interrupting the 2012 banger “Woman on Fireplace,” right here repurposed as a joyful “I’m on high of the world” music. “That’s what we’re doing?”
Alas, “that’s what we’re doing?” is how I felt the second the second act began. As if the creators had run out of time for finesse — although Keys and Diaz have been engaged on “Hell’s Kitchen” for greater than a decade — its wit curdles into lectures because the story, particularly Jersey’s, goes blurry. Her strained relationship with Ali’s father, right here a jazz pianist although in actuality a flight attendant, bears the attribute indicators of dramaturgical whiplash. (Then again, he’s performed by Brandon Victor Dixon, a human aphrodisiac, vocally and in any other case.) An argument between Jersey and Miss Liza Jane feels equally trumped up, till it’s resolved in an apparent twist of pathos. And regardless of Bean’s ability, Jersey’s love for her daughter, the core of the present, will get misplaced within the try and complicate it.
The second act songs observe swimsuit; it’s no coincidence that the three new ones Keys wrote for the manufacturing, all good, are on the high of the present. And although well-structured musicals sometimes have far fewer songs within the second half than the primary to make method for the complexities of plot decision, right here there are a whopping 14, ending indulgently if unavoidably with the 2009 New York anthem “Empire State of Thoughts.” Consequently, “Hell’s Kitchen” practically turns into what it tried to keep away from firstly: successful dump.
However as a result of these hits are hits for a purpose, there’s nonetheless pleasure in listening to them. The singing, preparations and orchestrations (by varied palms together with Adam Blackstone, Tom Kitt, Dominic Follacaro and Keys herself) are thrilling, if unusually unbalanced in Gareth Owen’s sound design. The hearth-escape units (by Robert Brill), expressive projections (by Peter Nigrini), saturated lighting (by Natasha Katz) and infrequently hilarious costumes (by Dede Ayite) are all Broadway-ready.
I hope “Hell’s Kitchen” will likely be too. After all, many musicals make the switch with out ever fixing their first act issues, not to mention their second. That might be a disgrace right here. Although not completely advised, Ali’s discovery that artwork is love, with or with out the man, is simply too wealthy to not attain a much bigger viewers, and one million extra women on fireplace.
By Jan. 14 on the Public Theater, Manhattan; publictheater.org. Working time: 2 hours half-hour.