For Her Broadway Debut, She Sings Alicia Keys’s Story

Maleah Joi Moon has come a long way in a short time.

Just a few years ago, she was a theater kid in suburban New Jersey, listening to her dad’s Alicia Keys records, starring in a high school production of “Rent,” waiting outside a Broadway stage door hoping to meet the cast of “Waitress.”

Now, at 21, she’s a Tony nominee for her Broadway debut as the star of the new Alicia Keys musical, “Hell’s Kitchen,” which opened last month. That means she is working alongside the people she had just been fangirling — getting vocal advice and the occasional breakfast with Keys; honing her acting instincts with the show’s director, Michael Greif, who directed “Rent” 28 years ago; and learning to manage an eight-show week from Shoshana Bean, the actress she stage-doored in “Waitress,” who has taken Moon under her wing while portraying her mother.

Moon’s confident performance — smoky voice, headstrong attitude, gestural dance moves — has caught the attention of critics. “Sensational,” Elisabeth Vincentelli declared in The New York Times. For Vulture, Jackson McHenry called her both “a great discovery” and “a virtuoso.” And Adam Feldman of Time Out went for wordplay: “With apologies to astronomers: Moon is a star.”

“It’s surreal and it’s ridiculous and crazy and insane and all the things,” Moon told me as we stood in Shubert Alley, just under a digital marquee featuring her atop a piano, not far from the stage door where she now signs autographs for her own fans. “But my inner child — the one that wanted to be Nala on Broadway — is like, this is aligned. It’s divine alignment. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t meant.”

Moon is dancing a delicate dance in “Hell’s Kitchen,” sort of playing Alicia Keys and sort of not. The show is about a few formative months in the life of Ali, a 17-year-old girl chafing under her mother’s vigilance, hooking up with a street musician and discovering a gift for piano. It is a fictionalized remix of Keys’s own childhood chapters, but it is partly Moon too — she has been with the show through developmental workshops and an Off Broadway production, and her personality and physicality, as well as her very recent adolescence, inform those of her character.

“Hell’s Kitchen,” a semi-autobiographical Alicia Keys musical, was nominated for 13 Tony Awards.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
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