The trouble with Hell’s Kitchen, I think, is that it didn’t spend enough time in the development kitchen. The new musical at the Public is a seriously undercooked dish, a slice of New York life that comes out of the oven tasting distressingly bland. Working with a talented playwright but first-time librettist (Kristoffer Diaz) and a fabulously successful pop songwriter (Alicia Keys), director Michael Greif hasn’t managed to bend their considerable skills to the specific storytelling needs of musical theatre. For all the busy coming and going onstage, it is a strangely low-energy affair that never catches the streetwise, multi-ethnic flavor of Manhattan’s West Side before the fancy high-rises and cute restaurants moved in.
Diaz’s book, apparently based on Keys’ early years, focuses on seventeen-year-old Ali, who lives in the neighborhood of the title with her mother, Jersey, a former actress turned working stiff tied down, by economic necessity, to two jobs. (As evidence of the show’s lack of texture, we never learn what Jersey does for a living.) Alone in their apartment on the forty-second floor of Manhattan Plaza, Ali feels like a prisoner; crazy with energy (and hormones), she yearns to take part in local street life, but Jersey has deputized her friends, the building staff, and even the local cops, ordering them to keep tabs on her daughter’s every move.
The intergenerational conflict, which has a racial undertone (Ali is Black, Jersey is white), boils over when Ali falls for Knuck, who, passing time drumming on a plastic bucket, looks like her ideal bad boy. In reality, he’s an ordinary guy, a housepainter by trade who attends church on Sunday and works hard at staying out of trouble. He is also nearly a decade her senior, but that doesn’t stop Ali, who showers him with attention, and soon they land in bed. Catching them in the act, Jersey calls the police on Knuck, nearly triggering a George Floyd incident. In desperation, she also summons her ex, Davis, Ali’s father, a jazz musician whose true love is his next gig. (Jersey got pregnant at seventeen and is terrified Ali will repeat her mistake.) Meanwhile, Ali falls under the influence of Miss Liza Jane, an aging, ailing pianist who, in addition to music lessons, schools the girl in the musical achievements of her Black ancestors by way of teaching her something about self-worth.