“Hell’s Kitchen,” a loosely fictionalized story inspired by Keys’s own childhood, depicts a short chapter in the life of a 17-year-old growing up surrounded by artists in a New York housing development where most of the units are subsidized for performers. The protagonist, a girl being raised by her single mother, discovers a love for piano, and an attraction to an adult man, while chafing at her mother’s efforts to keep her safe in a gritty neighborhood.
The musical features new arrangements of Keys’s biggest hits, including “Fallin’,” “Girl on Fire,” “No One” and “Empire State of Mind,” as well as several new songs the pop star wrote for this show. Keys, who does not perform in “Hell’s Kitchen,” has been working on it for more than a decade with the playwright Kristoffer Diaz, who wrote the book.
In an unusual move that demonstrates Keys’s long determination to retain control of her own intellectual property and career arc, the musical’s lead producer will be AKW Productions, which is a company Keys owns and describes as “focused on creating diverse, real, authentic and genuine stories in film, television, theater and music.” Asked whether the stage production, like most commercial Broadway musicals, would also have investors, Keys said, “Yes, there’s going to be some really special people that are coming along for the ride.”
The musical is directed by Michael Greif, and choreographed by Camille A. Brown. The downtown cast is led by Maleah Joi Moon as the protagonist, joined by Shoshana Bean as the mother, Brandon Victor Dixon as the absentee father, and Kecia Lewis as the piano teacher. The Broadway cast has not yet been announced.
Reviews were mixed, with many critics praising the performances and the production but saying they wanted more from the story. Writing in The New York Times, the critic Jesse Green called the first act “thrilling,” but said it “disappoints after the mid-show break.” In The Washington Post, the critic Peter Marks was underwhelmed, calling it “a perfectly nice musical,” but in The Los Angeles Times, the critic Charles McNulty was far more enthusiastic, writing, “I was surprised by how rapturously I fell under the musical’s spell.”