Review | The Alicia Keys musical, ‘Hell’s Kitchen,’ is nice, and nothing more

NEW YORK — In “Hell’s Kitchen,” they’ve crafted a perfectly nice musical out of the soul-fired songbook of Alicia Keys. Ali, a character inspired by the teenage Keys and played by newcomer Maleah Joi Moon, is strong-willed but nice. Her boo, Knuck (Chris Lee), is a bit standoffish but also really nice. Despite her hard shell, Ali’s mother, Jersey (Shoshana Bean), seems pretty darn nice, too. As for Ali’s unreliable, mostly absent father, Davis (Brandon Victor Dixon): You’d have to grant that, at some level, he’s kind of — well, you get the picture.

Even New York, the tough burg Keys and Jay-Z and others romanticized in the 2009 song “Empire State of Mind” — and now the “Hell’s Kitchen” finale — comes across as a chummy town where you’re sure to find your own supportive community. And also dance a lot, in the singer-songwriter’s anthology musical that marked its official opening Sunday night at off-Broadway’s Public Theater.

So, to recap: Keys and company have written a show about home that isn’t all that much to write home about. Using Keys’s blues-, jazz- and pop-infused compositions, director Michael Greif and librettist Kristoffer Diaz construct a teenage coming-of-age musical with many of the characters we’ve come to know and keep two steps ahead of: the restless 17-year-old, the protective mom, the cute boyfriend, the demanding teacher.

They and a spunky ensemble have been assembled on designer Robert Brill’s scaffolded set (which will remind you of other Greif-directed projects, such as the Pulitzer-winning “Next to Normal”). In 23 songs written by Keys with other artists, they tell the tried-and-true story of a star and her roots. Except that, on the evidence of “Hell’s Kitchen,” there isn’t much scintillating story to tell.

What “Hell’s Kitchen” does dish out in ample portions are vocalizing and dancing pleasures. The performances by Lee, Bean, Dixon and Kecia Lewis (the last as Ali’s lovingly stern piano instructor, Miss Liza Jane) are sung with polished, at times dazzling conviction. Oozing street-smart charm, Moon makes an impressive professional debut as Keys’s alter ego (although one hopes that with this octave-traversing role, Moon’s voice remains suitably rested). And Camille A. Brown’s choreography, alive with the urban energy of hip-hop and house dancing, provides a reliable source of electricity.

“She’s just a girl and she’s on fire,” goes the lyric to “Girl on Fire,” from Keys’s 2012 album of that title. Like many of the songs in “Hell’s Kitchen” — the Midtown Manhattan neighborhood where the singer-songwriter grew up — this one satisfies the show’s autobiographical mandate. “Gramercy Park,” sweetly sung by Lee and Moon, takes place, aptly enough, in that affluent district, where Knuck works as a house painter, and “Pawn It All,” delivered with blow-the-speakers-out power by Bean, expresses all of Jersey’s disappointment at the lousy husband and father she opted for.

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You’re never quite allowed to forget over the 2½ hours of “Hell’s Kitchen” that a musical built on “found” music has a limited toolbox. Greif, Diaz and Brown line up the ensemble at the top of Act 2 for a heartwarming “Authors of Forever”: “So let’s celebrate the dreamers/ We embrace the space between us,” they sing — a scene that seems patterned on “Seasons of Love,” the unforgettable Act 2 opener of the Greif-directed “Rent.” The end devised for Miss Liza Jane, graciously embodied by Lewis, also feels like something taken from the Guide to Inspirational Characters.

Keys’s fans probably won’t hold the musical to account for these rather standard-issue elements, as the orchestrations by Adam Blackstone and Tom Kitt, arrangements by Blackstone and Keys, and music direction by Dominic Fallacaro so exuberantly reproduce the tunes they love. It’s all in service of something short of fabulous. Just, you know, nice.

Hell’s Kitchen, music and lyrics by Alicia Keys, book by Kristoffer Diaz. Directed by Michael Greif. Choreography, Camille A. Brown; music supervision, Adam Blackstone; Sets, Robert Brill; costumes, Dede Ayite; lighting, Natasha Katz; sound, Gareth Owen; projections, Peter Nigrini; orchestrations, Adam Blackstone and Tom Kitt. With Chad Carstarphen, Crystal Monee Hall, Vanessa Ferguson. About 2½ hours. Through Jan. 14 at Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., New York.

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