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December 7, 2023
Hell’s Kitchen
Photo by Joan Marcus

On the surface, Ali, the main character in the new show “Hell’s Kitchen” at The Public Theater directed by Michael Greif, is a typical 17 year old girl with an easily relatable problem. She’s interested in an attractive young man but her overly-protective mother, Jersey keeps a tight leash on her.
Ali’s situation will resonate with many teens negotiating with their parents. Except this teen is different, since “Hell’s Kitchen “ is the somewhat semi-autobiographical story of singer-songwriter Alicia Keys, whose music is the framework for this play.

Hell’s Kitchen is a neighborhood in NYC, bordered by 34th st to the south and 59 to the north, Eighth Avenue to the east and the Hudson River to the west. It boasts great restaurants and it’s also where singer-songwriter Alicia Keys grew up. Although the musical offers the diversity of the neighborhood, it doesn’t show any of its grittiness.

The Sunday matinee I attended was unique in that it began at 1pm instead of 3 pm and it was a mask-enforced performance. I appreciate The Public Theater for trying to accommodate people and wish more theaters would do so.

Unfortunately, several major performers were out for the performance I saw the understudies instead.I was prepared for Donna Vivino to play Jersey, and wasn’t disappointed in her performance. She was wonderful. She has a strong voice and is passionate and emotional as the conflicted single mother.

However, I must admit that I was disappointed when I got to the theater and saw two slips of paper in the playbill. Not only was the mother played by the understudy, so was Ali and her boyfriend and a few others.

Many months ago when COVID was still running rampant and impacted the newly-opened theaters, many performers were ill and that affected the shows. Audiences were disappointed when the stars they came to see were out ill. Actor Hugh Jackman wisely extolled the understudies, praising them for “ the courage, the brilliance, the dedication, the talent” they showed. He called them the “bedrock of Broadway.” It was because of the understudies that the performance of “Hell’s Kitchen” I attended could go on.

Playing Ali, Gianna Harris gave an impressive performance. She's a young, energetic performer with a great voice and a magnetic presence. She was easily able to shoulder the leading role. Quite frankly, some of the other understudies didn’t fare as well.

Cast regulars include experienced Broadway performers Brandon Victor Dixon as Ali’s unreliable father and the wonderful Kecia Lewis as Miss Liza Jane, the piano teacher.

The music is all Keys, some of which was written for the show. Some of it was familiar to me, but her ardent fans knew much more. The book is by Kristoffer Diaz, a Pulitzer Prize finalist. One problem with the show is perhaps there is too much music and the storyline was prolonged as an excuse to include more. The storyline becomes thin in the second, much slower act. When Miss Liza Jean dies, Ali’s father appears. He didn't know her and shouldn’t have been there but it’s an opportunity for another song or two. The show was helped by the talents of Dixon and Lewis, both of whom sing well. Lewis also has the most mellifluous speaking voice.

The dancing is spectacular and every number is accompanied by the dancers (Choreography by Camille A. Brown). The ensemble is a lesson in diversity and watching them perform.

I heard today that Hell’s Kitchen will be moving to Broadway next year. Hopefully the show will be fine tuned and shortened. No cast has been announced yet. I hope some of the fine understudies get their recognition.

The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
(at Astor Place)
New York, NY 10003

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Written by: Elyse Trevers
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