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Rob Weinert-KendtDecember 14, 2023
Chris Lee and Maleah Joi Moon in the premiere of “Hell’s Kitchen,” a new musical with music and lyrics by Alicia Keys at the Public Theater (photo: Joan Marcus).Chris Lee and Maleah Joi Moon in the premiere of “Hell’s Kitchen,” a new musical with music and lyrics by Alicia Keys at the Public Theater (photo: Joan Marcus).

Even without lyrics, music can tell a story. The rich textures of harmony, sound and rhythm, unfolding over time, can work on us physically to make us feel something: sadness, joy, anxiety, calm. If you doubt this, try watching a movie without the soundtrack sometime.

This is no less true when a show is telling a story about music and the people who make it. Three new Off-Broadway shows don’t just show us what draws musicians to their chosen medium, often against steep odds and at great personal cost; they make us hear it, with often bracing effect. In “Hell’s Kitchen,” now at the Public Theater, pop star Alicia Keys works with playwright Kristoffer Diaz to sculpt a coming-of-age tale from a stellar catalog of her hits. In “Buena Vista Social Club,” now at the Atlantic Theater, playwright Marco Ramirez turns the Grammy-winning Cuban album from the 1990s into a rumination on memory and collaboration (of both the political and creative variety). And in “Stereophonic,” an utterly beguiling play by David Adjmi at Playwrights Horizons, a fictional 1970s band struggles to make an album in a California recording studio.

Three new Off-Broadway shows don’t just show us what draws musicians to their chosen medium; they make us hear it, with often bracing effect.

The musical theater has become glutted with what are commonly, and pejoratively, called “jukebox” musicals—i.e., shows that exploit audience familiarity with pop songs and weave narratives around them. One successful subset of this trend has been the bio-musical, in which musicians’ lives are recounted through their songs: This is the formula behind “Jersey Boys,” “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” and the currently running “MJ the Musical.” “Hell’s Kitchen” mostly resists that mold, I would say to its detriment. Though it ostensibly tells the story of Ali (Maleah Joi Moon), a rebellious mixed-race teen growing up in midtown Manhattan with a single mom, Jersey (Shoshana Bean), and finding music as an outlet along the way, courtesy of a wise pianist, Miss Liza Jane (Kecia Lewis), the show spends more time on Ali’s romance with a house painter, Knuck (Chris Lee), and her mom’s fitful relationship with her ex, Davis (Brandon Victor Dixon), than on Ali’s relationship with her instrument or her voice.

The result is musically thrilling and narratively stale. But with a cast full of vocal powerhouses that make Keys’s songs soar, and restless, over-achieving choreography by Camille Brown that fills every spare inch of the stage, audiences don’t seem to mind—the show has already announced a Broadway transfer in March. At its best, “Hell’s Kitchen” reminded me of shows that predate the jukebox musical trend: the ’80s and ’90s anthologies “My One and Only” and “Crazy for You,” which used beloved Gershwin standards as excuses for explosions of superlative singing and dancing, with the scripts as set dressing. From “If I Don’t Have You” to “Empire State of Mind,” Keys’s material is every bit the equal of the so-called Great American Songbook; I can hardly begrudge the lavish if empty frame it is given in “Hell’s Kitchen.”

Sarah Pidgeon, Juliana Canfield and Tom Pecinka in ‘Stereophonic’ (photo: Chelcie Parry).
Sarah Pidgeon, Juliana Canfield and Tom Pecinka in ‘Stereophonic’ (photo: Chelcie Parry)

If “Buena Vista Social Club” feels more fully realized, it might be because it foregrounds its band and singers, and there’s simply nothing quite like hearing essentially acoustic music in an intimate space (here’s hoping a Broadway transfer, should it come, does not sacrifice this frisson). It also centers the story of the musicians themselves, particularly Omara Portuondo (Natalie Venetia Belcon), Compay Segundo (Julio Monge), and Ibrahim Ferrer (Mel Semé), three veteran singers who have largely fallen out of public favor, and fallen out with each other, when a young record producer, Juan de Marcos (Luis Vega), endeavors to bring them together to record some of their old songs for a new audience.

Ramirez’s book handily and movingly shuttles between 1956 and 1996, from pre-revolutionary Cuba to the limbo of the “special period,” when the island had lost its Soviet sponsor but was still under a stringent U.S. embargo. More fable-like than documentary, the show mostly elides or finesses the story’s political complications, focusing more on the way the revolution tore families apart for generations than on the reasons it arose in the first place, or what its long-tail impact has been. As with “Hell’s Kitchen,” the music and the dancing—the choreography is by Patricia Delgado and Justin Peck—mostly takes over the storytelling, and there are so many shades of longing and ecstasy embedded in these beautiful old songs that the emotional experience feels nearly kaleidoscopic. Some of this joy comes through the performances themselves: A high point of the show, funnily enough, is the moment when the flutist, Hery Paz, disarms a grumpy Omara with a pyrotechnic solo.

“Stereophonic” similarly has some of its best moments when its band members are jamming or harmonizing together, as we watch a Fleetwood Mac-like quintet find creative ways to sublimate the tensions roiling among them. The music, by former Arcade Fire member Will Butler, artfully channels the sound of late ’70s album rock, though we seldom hear a song all the way through, and in fact hear bits and pieces repeatedly, as we might if we were flies on the wall of the show’s meticulously recreated recording studio set. We also log time with what seem like aimless arguments and digressions among the band as they labor for months on a worthy follow-up to their current hit album, relying on coke, booze and gossip to get them through the control-freak drama instigated largely by bandleader Peter (Tom Pecinka) as he vies with his brilliant but thwarted partner Diana (Sarah Pidgeon), as well as with the entire band and a tetchy producer, Grover (Ed Gelb).

None of the time-killing is aimless, of course, any more than the behavior captured in a Robert Altman film or a Chekhov play. Indeed, under Daniel Aukin’s patient direction, playwright Adjmi and the play’s exquisite ensemble have forged an odd, convincing blend of behind-the-music melodrama and workplace comedy. At three luxurious hours, though, how will this hybrid form fare on Broadway, where “Stereophonic” is heavily rumored to be headed? To mangle Shakespeare: If music be the fuel of storytelling, play on.

More: Theater / Music

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