Alicia Keys’ Broadway Musical Showcases Life, Love, and the Allure of New York

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One could only imagine the elegant closing of Alicia Keys’ Broadway musical, a semi-autobiographical depiction of her life, to the powerful resonance of “Empire State of Mind.” As a New Yorker herself, one would think that this anthem would offer an impeccably fitting end to her musical rendition of her life’s journey. Albeit rather expected, mind you, as predictable as the chronic delays of the R train due to the vexing signal problems.

The musical “Hell’s Kitchen,” tells the moving coming-of-age story of Ali, a 17-year-old piano prodigy, awash in magnificent songs by the 16-time Grammy Award winner herself. Alongside a brilliantly adept cast, the narrative is pleasurable albeit safe, narrating a seemingly consequential story with nuanced simplicity.

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Its essence yearns to be raw, authentic, a gritty portrayal of life, echoed in the dialogue through countless profanities – 19 use of the f-bomb, to be exact. However, beneath this seeming authenticity is the story of a youthful, talented woman residing on the 42nd floor of a Manhattan high-rise, surrounded by the protective embrace of her loving mother – an undeniable nod towards the life of Keys herself.

A delightful surprise arrived with the opening of the musical last Saturday at the Shubert Theatre. Keys reimagined a selection of her beloved classics like “Fallin’,” “No One,” “Girl on Fire,” and “If I Ain’t Got You,” within the narrative, as well as introducing a slew of new songs, including an impressively stunning number, “Kaleidoscope.”

Keys’ songwriting prowess is undisputed. However, playwright Kristoffer Diaz’s attempt at concocting a socially conscious, relatable rom-com narrative seems less convincing. The show spotlights strong, independent women, with the role of Ali played miraculously by Maleah Joi Moon, whose infectious laughter, passionate character, and bold impetus took the audience by storm. Notably, Kecia Lewis’s soulful interpretation of a piano teacher was an absolute delight, and Shoshana Bean, playing Ali’s mother, simply captivated the crowd with her powerful vocals.

The narrative introduces Ali as a discontented teenager yearning for more out of life, expressing her longing in the new song, “The River.” Initially, Ali finds herself drawn to a house painter, portrayed by Chris Lee, and attempts to reconcile with her unreliable father, an intriguing character sketched by Brandon Victor Dixon. However, her deepest calling is a grand piano positioned in her apartment’s multipurpose room.

A real clash is seen between the portrayal of New York in the early 1990s and Keys’ lyrics about the city, which speak of rats, roaches, and heroin-filled cracks. The outlaw activities depicted within the musical are surprisingly tame, and law enforcement is painted in a positive, peaceful patrolling rather than brutalizing the city’s residents.

In another offbeat element, many of the intricate melodies played onstage are simply mimed while the tucked-away orchestra provides the actual music – an unusual approach to a musical ostensibly celebrating a singular artist and the significant role of music.

Energetic choreography by Camille A. Brown, utilizing a hip-hop rhetoric, coupled with Michael Greif’s skilled directorial eye, kept the show delightfully vibrant. However, the narrative at times seemed congested with numerous, unconventional elements – a ghost, strident motherhood, fleeting instances of mild parental abuse, dinner fixations, and even an awkwardly placed chorus.

The magical integration of Keys’ songs within the narrative was inspiring however, with tunes like “Girl on Fire” humorously disrupted by rap segments, “Fallin’” beautifully transmuted into a sultry ballad and “No One” touchingly reflecting the complex love between a mother and daughter.

These fascinating elements, however, lead to the anticipated climax – the moment when the young woman, overlooking her city from her cozy apartment’s couch, is about to step into her destined greatness. That captivating moment when you are inspired to walk past the doorman, embrace your dreams, and step into the bustling rhapsody of the concrete jungle, lit up under the illuminating city lights.