Alicia Keys, Sufjan Stevens and Huey Lewis all have pretty great Broadway musicals

Maleah Joi Moon (center, as Ali) and the company of “Hell’s Kitchen.” MUST CREDIT: Marc J. Franklin

NEW YORK – Pop music has a lot to say about growing up. Chances are your favorite artists at the time dispensed a lesson or two about finding your path and weathering its assorted heartbreaks.

Three new musicals that opened on Broadway this week – “Hell’s Kitchen,” “The Heart of Rock and Roll” and “Illinoise” – shape songs by popular artists into compelling variations on the coming-of-age story. In a theater industry where bemoaning the supremacy of preexisting material has itself become a cliché, doubling up on the nostalgia factor – for the music itself and for a time when anything seemed possible – is a clever conceit.

All three shows richly enhance familiar tunes to fit a range of instruments and voices: Their music supervisors, orchestrators and arrangers are the true, and often unsung, MVPs. And they provide distinct pleasures, thanks to some combination of talent onstage and off, commitment to a vibe and inventiveness in going beyond dutiful fan service to deliver something more surprising.

The teenage trials of Ali in “Hell’s Kitchen” – dating the wrong guy, rebelling against her mother and learning to play the piano – are not the juicy stuff of a behind-the-scenes special on Alicia Keys, who has said that the book by Kristoffer Diaz is a fictionalized take on her New York City upbringing. Unlike so many song-catalog showcases, the propulsive, soulful musical that opened on Saturday at the Shubert Theater, after an October premiere at the Public, isn’t an act of self-mythologizing.

The girl-meets-world plot of “Hell’s Kitchen,” though not without some well-worn tropes, smartly allows Keys’s ripped-from-the-heart music to take the lead. The poetic lyrics and swooping, gospel melodies elevate everyday dramas into matters of cinematic importance – an aptly favored pastime of adolescence.

Moon, left, with Chris Lee and the company of “Hell’s Kitchen.” MUST CREDIT: Marc J. Franklin

Music supervisor Adam Blackstone, with collaborators Tom Kitt (on orchestrations) and Keys (on arrangements), transforms anthemic hits like “Girl on Fire” and “Empire State of Mind” into sternum-rattling production numbers featuring fly, fast-footed choreography by Camille A. Brown. Just as affecting are lone-character-at-the-piano torch songs, or unexpected treatments of ballads like “Fallin’” and “No One,” that expand the flood of feelings that Keys’ music can unleash.

Directed by Michael Greif, the production has a Manhattan-movie feel (the color-photo projections are by Peter Nigrini) and a deep bench of vocal talent: the vaulting and feathery riffs of Gianna Harris (an understudy for Ali the night I attended); the sweet and slick high runs of Brandon Victor Dixon (as Ali’s father Davis); and especially the sorrowful, subterranean soul of Kecia Lewis (Ali’s piano teacher Miss Liza Jane). Then there’s Shoshana Bean, who shreds her voice like an electric guitar as Ali’s mother Jersey.

Dreams of tearing up the stage with his forsaken bandmates distract Bobby (Corey Cott) from more grown-up ambitions in “The Heart of Rock and Roll,” an audaciously goofy new musical that has become the eyebrow-raising Who knew? of the season. Set to the new wavy power pop of Huey Lewis and the News, the show isn’t exactly betting it all on the modest celebrity of its namesake, who greeted a handful of patrons outside the James Earl Jones Theater on Monday when I attended the press opening.

The plot, sprung from the band’s devotion to “Workin’ for a Livin’” and “The Power of Love,” is both doggedly silly and an astute take on the booming ‘80s (the book is by Jonathan A. Abrams, the story by Abrams and Tyler Mitchell). “I used to be a renegade,” howls Bobby, motor-footing around a cardboard box factory with his revved-up co-workers. And now, obviously: “It’s hip to be square!”

Tommy Bracco and the company of “The Heart of Rock and Roll.” MUST CREDIT: Matthew Murphy

Bobby’s conundrum – pursue rock and roll or corrugated shipping material – winks toward the Gen Xers who set aside their rebellious streak to settle down and enter a thriving economy: Every refrain is an assurance that they made the right choice. For self-conscious fluff, it’s deceptively well crafted.

Directed with assured wit by Gordon Greenberg, the breezy production is punctuated with sight gags and pops of retro style (the particularly spot-on hair, wig and makeup design is by Nikiya Mathis). McKenzie Kurtz proves why commitment is comedy gold as Cassandra, the boss’s jumpy, type-A daughter and Bobby’s potential sweetheart. For the red flag raised by that setup, Tamika Lawrence is a one-liner assassin as Roz, the head of HR.

Though there isn’t much variety to the band’s bouncy enthusiasm (robustly orchestrated by music supervisor and arranger Brian Usifer), the score is a catchy vehicle for the squall of aerobic high kicks and hip pumps from choreographer Lorin Latarro, who also excels at creative physical humor.

Earnest though it is, there is a sense of playfulness to “Illinoise,” which opened on Thursday at the St. James Theater following a March premiere at the Park Avenue Armory. The dance musical imagines the narrative songs from Sufjan Stevens’s 2005 concept album as journal entries shared by friends around a campfire of lanterns (the book is by Justin Peck and Jackie Sibblies Drury; the lovely lighting by Brandon Stirling Baker). Three vocalists (Elijah Lyons, Shara Nova and Tasha Viets-VanLear) in hand-painted butterfly wings beautifully harmonize Stevens’s lyrics with a raised onstage orchestra.

Directed and choreographed by Peck, a resident at New York City Ballet, “Illinoise” hangs suspended somewhere between pantomime and modern dance, a collage of gestures and ballet fragments that shares more DNA with contemporary visual albums than stage musicals (though “Movin’ Out,” which set Billy Joel songs to Twyla Tharp choreography, comes to mind). The movement is most evocative when relaying emotions in the abstract (as in affecting pas de deux between Gaby Diaz and Ben Cook, and Ricky Ubeda and Ahmad Simmons), rather than in a literal sense (a heartbroken character doesn’t need to paw their heart).

Here is where I have to admit that Stevens’s music isn’t for me (I prefer my emo edgier and less precious), but the lush orchestrations and arrangements by Timo Andres demonstrate the resounding expanse of Stevens’s instrumentations (music direction and supervision are by Nathan Koci). Judging from the cheers and sniffles at the first Broadway performance, fans got what they came for: a reflection of the wonder and uncertainty that young people feel tumbling into an unknown future.

Hell’s Kitchen, ongoing at the Shubert Theatre in New York. 2 hours, 30 minutes.

The Heart of Rock and Roll, ongoing at the James Earl Jones Theater in New York. 2 hours, 30 minutes.

Illinoise, through Aug. 10 at the St. James Theater in New York. 1 hour, 30 minutes.



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