Even within the Golden Age of musical theater, displays so usually died after intermission that critics got here up with a reputation for the illness. “2nd act bother” offered in some ways: unmoored songs, determined chopping, illogical crises, hasty workarounds. But all the ones 2nd act signs arose from the similar underlying situation: first act ambitions.
So it’s now not in reality unexpected that an significantly bold new musical like “Hell’s Kitchen,” the semi-autobiographical jukebox constructed at the lifestyles and catalog of Alicia Keys, disappoints after the mid-show damage, tumbling immediately into the potholes it spent its first part so well averting. What’s unexpected on this promising exhibit, which opened on the Public Theater on Sunday with the most obvious purpose of shifting to Broadway, is how exciting it’s till then.
Unexpected to me, anyway. I in finding that jukeboxes — particularly biographical ones, like “Motown” and “MJ” — nearly inevitably upload to the peculiar difficulties of musical building with difficulties distinctive to their provenance. The involvement of the unique artists (or their estates) results in historic sugarcoating. A hurry to hit the entire top issues ends up in a cherry-picked résumé. The catalog retreads, written for a distinct explanation why, fail to transport the motion ahead. And because the ones songs are the exhibit’s promoting level, they finish up wagging the tale.
However Keys, running with the playwright Kristoffer Diaz and the director Michael Greif, steps round maximum of the ones pitfalls within the exhibit’s first hour, putting in the tale with notable verve and potency. In neat succession it introduces the principle characters (17-year-old Ali and her unmarried mom, Jersey), the principle surroundings (the Midtown New york group of Hell’s Kitchen within the overdue Nineties), the parameters of the plot (Ali’s thirst for romance and artwork) and an coming near near supply of warfare (Mother).
On the identical time, it floods us with song to determine the worlds it’s taking us into, way past the R&B and dad that Keys is very best identified for. In a fabulous elevator collection, Ali encounters opera, jazz, merengue and classical piano as she descends from the one-bedroom Forty second-floor rental she stocks with Jersey, a someday actor juggling two jobs. (The construction, New york Plaza, gives reasonably priced housing for artists.) Then, when Ali reaches the road, a large rush of sound enfolds her; all of New York, it kind of feels, is making a song, enjoying and, in Camille A. Brown’s excitingly contextual choreography, dancing.
We’re only some mins into the exhibit and its armature is totally in position. We all know that that is going to be a mother-daughter love-and-letting-go tale, as Jersey (Shoshana Bean, heat and pyrotechnic) tries to stay Ali fed and protected. Although race isn’t explicitly a subject matter between them, Jersey is white and Ali is biracial, and Ali (Maleah Joi Moon in a sensational debut) will step by step be drawn clear of her mom’s smothering through the broader crew of folks she encounters.
One is the classical pianist, Omit Liza Jane (the magisterial Kecia Lewis), who will call for that Ali take courses from her — even though in reality Keys began learning at 7, now not 17. And out in the street, to the lines of the 2003 hit “You Don’t Know My Identify,” Ali will flirt with a bucket drummer named Knuck (Chris Lee, candy as pie) even supposing he’s in his mid-20s. He’ll face up to — to start with.
And so, over the direction of eleven songs, the primary act does the paintings of bold first acts all over: increasing the exhibit’s horizon to the bigger international wherein the motion takes position (now not an even international for younger Black New Yorkers) and deepening our wisdom of the principle characters thru warfare. Additionally humor: Diaz — whose hilarious skilled wrestling play, “The Elaborate Front of Chad Deity,” used to be a Pulitzer Prize finalist — saves the tale from an excessive amount of earnestness. Credit score Greif, too, whose secure control of tone and pressure coaxes drama from a story that might simply were too inside.
At the side of Keys in addition they resolve, or a minimum of extend, most of the jukebox issues. By way of holding an overly slender focal point on only a few weeks in Ali’s lifestyles, “Hell’s Kitchen” chooses the opportunity of dramatic intensity over profession highlights. Neither is there a lot sugarcoating: Keys turns out reasonably prepared to give her bold stand-in as a hormonal youngster proof against not unusual sense — and Moon, 21, is precociously suave and fearless in turning in that complicated portrait.
Maximum vital, Keys’s songs, even hits like “Fallin’,” “If I Ain’t Were given You” and “No One,” are compatible into the tale (and into the mouths of a number of characters) with out an excessive amount of jimmying. In the event that they don’t, the location is stated successfully. When Ali in any case does spend the night time with Knuck — proper on time, simply prior to the quite a lot of tale strains merge in a dreadful match on the finish of the primary act — Ali’s buddy Tiny (Vanessa Ferguson) is miffed, for that is meant to be an unapologetically woman-centered tale. “The arena is hers ’motive she were given a person now?” she complains, interrupting the 2012 banger “Lady on Hearth,” right here repurposed as a happy “I’m on best of the arena” tune. “That’s what we’re doing?”
Alas, “that’s what we’re doing?” is how I felt the instant the second one act began. As though the creators had run out of time for finesse — even though Keys and Diaz were running on “Hell’s Kitchen” for greater than a decade — its wit curdles into lectures as the tale, particularly Jersey’s, is going blurry. Her strained dating with Ali’s father, right here a jazz pianist even though in fact a flight attendant, bears the function indicators of dramaturgical whiplash. (Alternatively, he’s performed through Brandon Victor Dixon, a human aphrodisiac, vocally and differently.) A controversy between Jersey and Omit Liza Jane feels in a similar fashion trumped up, till it’s resolved in an glaring twist of pathos. And in spite of Bean’s ability, Jersey’s love for her daughter, the core of the exhibit, will get misplaced within the try to complicate it.
The second one act songs apply swimsuit; it’s no accident that the 3 new ones Keys wrote for the manufacturing, all excellent, are on the best of the exhibit. And even though well-structured musicals in most cases have a ways fewer songs in the second one part than the primary to make approach for the complexities of plot answer, right here there are a whopping 14, finishing indulgently if unavoidably with the 2009 New York anthem “Empire State of Thoughts.” Because of this, “Hell’s Kitchen” just about turns into what it attempted to steer clear of at first: a success unload.
However as a result of the ones hits are hits for a explanation why, there’s nonetheless excitement in listening to them. The making a song (below the route of Dominic Follacaro) and preparations and orchestrations (through quite a lot of fingers together with Adam Blackstone, Tom Kitt and Keys herself) are exciting, if surprisingly unbalanced in Gareth Owen’s sound design. The fireplace-escape units (through Robert Brill), expressive projections (through Peter Nigrini), saturated lighting fixtures (through Natasha Katz) and frequently hilarious costumes (through Dede Ayite) are all Broadway-ready.
I am hoping “Hell’s Kitchen” shall be too. After all, many musicals make the switch with out ever fixing their first act issues, let by myself their 2nd. That might be a disgrace right here. Although now not completely informed, Ali’s discovery that artwork is love, without or with the man, is simply too wealthy now not to achieve a larger target market, and 1,000,000 extra ladies on hearth.
Thru Jan. 14 on the Public Theater, New york; publictheater.org. Operating time: 2 hours half-hour.