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Open: 02/11/09- Close: 03/08/09 Hell's Kitchen The Musical
Reviewed for TheaterOnline.com By: Ashley Griffin

Hell’s Kitchen has become the ultimate symbol of America as the melting pot of the world. Especially after the industrial revolution, immigrants from all countries called this poor area of New York City home, and together amalgamated their cultures into the American culture we have today. Hell’s Kitchen: The Musical is itself a melting pot, a melting pot of other musicals. Shows such as Jersey Boys, West Side Story, In The Heights, Oliver, You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown, and even Jekyll and Hyde. However, where as Hell’s Kitchen blended itself into a new, pure substance, Hell’s Kitchen in that sense came out less a melting pot and more a stew. The elements that make it up, and other shows that obviously inspired it, are far from being seamlessly combined; instead they stick out as individual pieces, refusing to meld.

Hell’s Kitchen: The Musical is set in the early '60s and tells the story of Danny, a young Frankie Valliesque youth who dreams of making it as a singer, and making it out of his neighborhood: the streets of Hell’s Kitchen. When his best friend is shot in a gang related “rumble” trying to protect him, it throws Danny’s world into a tailspin, entangling him with the mob and losing him his true love, Rosalita. Eventually Danny does become a famous singer and along with that fame becomes a slightly jaded playboy. But of course this is musical theater (cue the jazz hands) and everything turns out perfectly in the end.

Almost every page of the program for Hell’s Kitchen declares that it is going to Broadway. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it really isn’t ready just yet. But hey, that’s what workshops are for. What does make the show start to come together is the FANTASTIC musical direction, and nice, old-fashioned Broadway score of Toby Kasavan (with Jon Montgomery). The cast just sounds great on all accounts, especially in their tight harmonies. The strength of the musical direction, however, can’t overcome the large deficiencies in the book and lyrics. Both read like Musical Theater Writing 101, with a song coming along after only a few lines of “setup” dialogue. The songs are also over-crowded. There are 16 numbers in the first act alone – the first seven (with one exception) are all upbeat ensemble numbers, and almost all of the final 10 are stand-there-and-sing solos (“park and bark” as it’s referred to in the opera world). The first act itself runs at an hour-and-a-half. The story is inconsistent. The cast appear to be upbeat, fun, and even wholesome kids having a swell time, almost reminiscent of Peanuts characters who have fallen on slightly hard times. Yet they turn around and sing that they are “The Children of the Night, The Children of the Streets” as if they were in Jekyll and Hyde. The result is a show that is one step away from being the type of farce featured in Evil Dead: The Musical. Fortunately, mainly thanks to some lovely performances, the show manages to be serious in spite of itself. The main such performance being Paul Luoma as the ill-fated Billy.

The second act fares better than the first, possibly because it allows itself to go further into the dark underbelly of Hell’s Kitchen life. Heidi Beekmann makes a wonderful Fosseesque stripper named Honey, and the highlight of the evening is Omar Edwards, who almost stopped the show as an amazing tap-dancing gangster. One plot point that was especially confusing, however, was ultimately never resolved. Danny’s mother was formerly a successful Broadway performer. She fell in love with a musician who abandoned her when she became pregnant – forcing her to move to Hell’s Kitchen, with no way out. Danny, a singer, falls for his childhood sweetheart, and later successful reporter, Rosalita (a lovely Aimee L. Corley, whose solos were the only stand outs). But as Danny gets older, he gets more irresponsible. One of the themes of the show seemed to be generations repeating themselves, and it was not inconceivable to imagine Danny doing to Rosalita what his father had done to his mother. This was never resolved, and left the show on a bittersweet note. The costumes and lights were nice – well done on what was most likely a rather low budget. The sets were well-crafted but looked more like they belonged on Sesame Street, or rather Avenue Q than a serious Hell’s Kitchen Musical. The direction and choreography were fine, though there were a few too many straight out “Jazz Hands” moments for such serious subject matter. The show had a bit of a junior-high or high-school musical feel about it.

All in all, if Hell’s Kitchen aspires to Broadway, I would rethink the structure, and the book and lyrics (I couldn’t help but chuckle when stand out ensemble member Danielle Ryan sang “This is a Tragedy!” in all earnestness right after Billy was shot.) It was a credit to the actress, not the material that I believed that she was truly upset by his death. Another such moment was when Ms. Corley, in the final trial scene where Danny is being charged with murder, quietly adlibbed “I don’t understand why they don’t put me on the witness stand. I was there!” Exactly my thoughts. It might do the shows creative team good to have a sit down discussion with their cast. A dramaturge would also be a great addition. However, despite the book and lyrics, the music, and cast are lovely, and it is always a treat to get to see a show in its beginning stages.  

Venue:
Hudson Guild Theatre : 441 W, 26th Street