Off-Broadway Review

Here, Hell: Last Sondheim, First Keys

It should come as no surprise that Here We Are, the final effort by Stephen Sondheim, is unlike any other work from the late master of the American musical theater. Never content to examine the same subject matter or to repeat his style, each of the masterpieces and near-misses in Sondheim’s canon are unique, save for the brilliance and daring they all share. Sweeney Todd is nothing like Company. Follies does not resemble Assassins. Pacific Overtures is not a mate to Sunday in the Park with George.

Here We Are
Michaela Diamond, Amber Gray, Steven Pasquale, Bobby Cannavale, Rachel Bay Jones, and Jeremy Shamos in Here We Are.
Credit: Emilio Madrid

Here We Are is something different from all that come before it, not only from Sondheim’s previous output but from the run-of-the-mill Broadway fare. It’s not perfect but it is adventurous, ambitious and a welcome change from jukebox shows and movie blockbuster retreads. With David Ives’ clever book, Joe Mantello’s ever-flowing direction, a cast of amazing reliables, and David Zinn’s versatile and attractive set design in the Shed’s Griffin Theater, Here We Are is exciting and challenging theater. The show has been in development for years and it does seem as if Sondheim was not quite finished with the score. It contains fewer songs than you would expect in a two-and-a-half hour show, but we should take what gems we can get. And somehow, the shift in perspectives from the melodic first act to the song-starved second works in its favor.

The story is a surrealist melding of two classic Luis Bunuel films. In the first act, based on The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, a group of moneyed elites wends their way to various eateries from brunch to dinnertime, unsuccessfully seeking sustenance. Everywhere they go, there is no food available. Along the road, they pick up representatives of the military and the clergy, making their group into a microcosm of society as norms break down. The second act is derived from The Exterminating Angel where the company finds, for some unknown reason, they cannot leave the luxurious confines of a room in an embassy and eventually descend into barbarism.

Here We Are
Amber Gray, Jeremy Shamos, David Hyde Pierce, Bobby Cannavale, and Steven Pasquale in Here We Are.
Credit: Emilio Madrid

Bunuel’s films examined the existential question of identity when material possessions and comforts are stripped away. The musical makes the same inquiry, a little too much and too often. The book could use some cutting (maybe one less restaurant visited) and the plot can meander into obscure dead ends, such as a puzzling dream sequence with a dancing bear. Fortunately, there are numerous funny and moving moments in Ives’ mostly sharp adaptation which involves drug cartels, revolutions and pointed social satire. Sondheim’s music is as oddly beautiful as ever, but one longs for more intricate wordplay in the lyrics (a waiter promising “a little latte later” is a highlight.) Each of the successive restaurants in Act One has its own signature musical motif, along with elegant minimal sets by Zinn and appropriate atmospheric lighting by Natasha Katz. Zinn also did the humorous costumes. There’s also a lovely duet for the rebellious spoiled rich daughter and a ramrod soldier (magnificently sung by Micaela Diamond and Jin Ha) as well as an ironically spritely group number introducing the characters and their rarefied lifestyle. One of Ives’ funnier gags is that the richest pair of the group is getting their dogs cloned so they can have a set of each pets at their various homes. “But which ones are real?” asks a friend. “They’re all real,” comes the reply.

The cast is chock-full of zingy, zesty almost caricature-ish portraits which become more human as their luxuries are removed. Most outstanding are the delightful Rachel Bay Jones as a feather-brained but lovable interior decorator who doesn’t know the difference between rococo and baroque; and Denis O’Hare and Tracie Bennett who bring a tangy bite to their multiple roles of various servants and waitstaff. In addition to a marvelous Diamond and Ha, there’s pleasure to be derived from David Hyde-Pierce’s ladies-shoe-loving bishop, Bobby Cannavale’s crude but charismatic financial manipulator, Steven Pasquale’s hilariously randy diplomat, Francois Battiste’s ramrod colonel, and Jeremy Shamos and Amber Gray’s bickering, high-powered couple.

Here We Are
Jeremy Shamos, Amber Gray, Bobby Cannavale, Denis O’Hare, Rachel Bay Jones, Steven Pasquale and Micaela Diamond in Here We Are.
Credit: Emilio Madrid

While Here We Are aims at the lofty goal of questioning the nature of human existence, Hell’s Kitchen at the Public has a lower target of telling a familiar story of teen self-discovery and hits a bull’s eye. Pop songwriter-singer Alicia Keys has taken several of her hits songs, written some new ones and along with book-writer Kristoffer Diaz, has woven pieces of her own past growing up in the titular Manhattan neighborhood into a entertaining, colorful but not too unusual tapestry. It’s a telling indicator of the state of commercial New York theater that Hell’s Kitchen has already announced its transfer to Broadway and the more challenging Here We Are will not move from its limited run at the Shed.

Hell’s Kitchen focuses on bubbly teen Ali dealing with an overbearing, but loving single mom, finding an older boyfriend, and discovering her musical talent thanks to a mentor figure who just happens to live in the same building. Well, Ali does live in Manhattan Plaza, a haven of stabilized housing for artists, actors, and musicians. After conflicts with mom, a spat with the boyfriend, and a heartbreaking loss—surprise—Ali emerges as a strong, confident young woman. Diaz’s book holds few unfamiliar tropes, but it efficiently delivers such Keys hits as “Girl on Fire,” “Fallin’” and that anthem for tour buses and pedicabs, “Empire State of Mind.” None of these fiery tunes seem arbitrarily sandwiched in, as is the case with many jukebox shows.

Hells Kitchen
Maleah Joi Moon (at right) and cast in Hell’s Kitchen.
Credit: Joan Marcus

Michael Greif’s staging is constantly innovative, taking us all around Gotham, realized by Robert Brill’s evocative set and Natasha Katz’s city-centric lighting. (One of the most effective sequences shows Ali descending in her building’s elevator, passing various residents practicing their music, all beautifully conveyed with Katz’s lighting, Gareth Owen’s sound and Peter Nigrini’s projections.) Camille A. Brown’s quirky, eccentric choreography brings the urban landscape to vibrant life.

Coming out of nowhere, young Maleah Joi Moon miraculously carries much of the show’s weight on her slender shoulders. Seldom leaving the stage, she conveys Ali’s drive, passion, and insecurities as well as soulfully crooning Keys’ ballads of yearning, despair, and joy. She dances with professional edge, too. This is a star in the making. Shoshanna Bean makes for a formidable Jersey, Ali’s strong-willed mom, particularly with her rock vocals. Brandon Victor Dixon infuses Ali’s absentee dad with the necessary charm and also displays impressive pipes. Kecia Lewis is a force of nature as the imperial pianist Miss Liza Jane who takes Ali under her wing. Chris Lee shows depth as Knuck, Ali’s amour who wants to be thought of as more than a thug.

Hell’s Kitchen is not as daring as Here We Are, but it’s rousing, entertaining, and, though her story is kinda corny, you’ll find yourself cheering for Ali finding her place in the New York of her dreams.

Here We Are: Oct. 22—Jan. 21, 2024. Griffin Theater/The Shed, 545 W. 30th St., NYC. Running time: two hours and 30 mins. including intermission.

Hell’s Kitchen: Nov. 19—Jan. 14, 2024. Newman Theater/Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., NYC (moving to the Shubert Theater, previews beginning March 28. Opens April 20). Running time: two hours and 30 mins. including intermission.

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