Kecia Lewis delivers in Broadway’s ‘Hell’s Kitchen’, earns a Tony nomination

Lewis portrays the formidable piano teacher Miss Liza Jane
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Chris Lee, from left, Maleah Joi Moon, Alicia Keys, Shoshana Bean, Brandon Victor Dixon, and Kecia Lewis attend the “Hell’s Kitchen” Broadway musical opening night performance at the Shubert Theatre on Saturday, April 20, 2024, in New York. (Photo by CJ Rivera/Invision/AP)

It’s fitting that Kecia Lewis has had her most successful theater season while playing a mentor.

The Broadway veteran — now celebrating 40 years in the business — portrays the formidable piano teacher Miss Liza Jane in “Hell’s Kitchen” who inspires the show’s young heroine to embrace music.

“Sit. Learn,” she says to her new teenage pupil, a role loosely based on Alicia Keys. The youngster looks at the older one at the piano and says: “I see in her, for the first time in my life, I think, what I might someday be: powerful. Regal. A queen.”

Lewis is like that cool, no-nonsense wise head who radiates skill, warmth and professionalism, helping rising star Maleah Joi Moon make her Broadway debut in the main role.

“She’s an earthy and royal woman and she brings a sense of powerful groundedness to every room she walks in,” Moon says. “I knew from our first conversation that I wanted to learn as much as I could from her.”

Lewis is having a special spring. Her musical has garnered 13 Tony Award nominations and she has earned her first Tony nod. She has already won awards from the Outer Critics and Lucille Lortel.

“This is all I’ve ever wanted to do since I was a child. This is the only thing that I’m truly trained in,” she says. “I’d be faking it in any other profession. I love what I do. It doesn’t feel like work to me.”

Lewis made her Broadway debut at 18 in the original company of “Dreamgirls” in the mid-1980s and went on to “The Gospel at Colonus” with Morgan Freeman, “Big River,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Once on This Island.”

The world of the theater almost lost her. She left “Once on This Island” early to do a TV pilot that didn’t pan out and was heartbroken. For six years, she taught fifth and sixth grades, worked at a magazine and at a shelter for young women who were pregnant and homeless.

Her love of performing gnawed at her until she decided to return to auditions in 1991. She knew she was rusty, so she auditioned for things she knew she’d never book, like a role in “The Sound of Music” at the Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera.

“I thought, no one will ever cast me in ‘The Sound of Music.’ And I got it. I was cast as the Mother Abbess. And that got me started,” she says.

The Ventura County Star critic was impressed: “As the Mother Abbess, Lewis blows open the lobby doors with her ‘Climb Every Mountain.’ Intermission comes just in time: Her booming finish to the song would be a hard act to follow.”

That role led to a string of Rodgers and Hammerstein shows — “South Pacific” and “The King and I” — and interesting parts. “And then I was clear, ‘OK, you were supposed to go back,’” she says.

Since her returns, Lewis’ roles have included Broadway — “The Drowsy Chaperone,” “Chicago,” “Leap of Faith,” “Cinderella” and “Children of a Lesser God” — and off-Broadway in “Mother Courage,” “The Skin of Our Teeth” and “Marie and Rosetta.” Her TV parts include “The Blacklist,” “Madam Secretary,” “Royal Pains” and “Blue Bloods.”

“I feel like I have a whole encyclopedia I could write about 40 years in this business,” she says.

Michael Greif, the director of “Hell’s Kitchen,” knew Lewis from their days working on “Big River” and thought she’d be perfect for Miss Liza Jane.

“Kecia is a great teacher on and offstage,” Greif says. “She brings her considerable experience, wisdom and generosity to every encounter with Maleah and to our incredible ensemble, many of whom are making their Broadway debuts.”

Lewis initially read the script not knowing that Keys’ songs would be used or that the teen at its center shared connections to the Grammy winner.

The show is set in Manhattan Plaza, an apartment complex in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan where Keys grew up and which offers affordable housing for people in the arts. It has a multipurpose space with a piano — the Ellington Room — where, in the musical, the heroine discovers Miss Liza Jane, an amalgamation of Keys’ mentors.

Lewis knows both the complex and the room well. She went to high school nearby, and one of her closest friends lived in Manhattan Plaza. She even sang at a memorial for her friend’s dad in the Ellington Room.

Keys personally worked with Lewis on her two big songs — “Perfect Way to Die” and “Author of Forever,” both already released — and the team paid for piano lessons so she could look the part.

On a deeper level, Lewis also connected to the musical’s coming-of-age story of a young woman with a single mom negotiating the tough streets of New York.

“I was a single parent of a son. My son is 20 now and in New York. So I understood on a very personal level a lot of what was being said and what was trying to be conveyed. She allowed me to bring all of that along with what she gave me and just let me fly on my own.”

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Mark Kennedy, The Associated Press