King Kong is spectacular — those dreamy eyes, that expressive sniffing of his nose, the earthquake of a roar. He is such a singular creature that, like Ann Darrow, the damsel he picks up in his impressively flexible hand, I started feeling protective towards him – and, by extension, toward the Broadway musical that he dominates.
No, “King Kong” didn’t need to be made into a musical. But here it is, and it’s fun.
No, the book is neither “Grapes of Wrath“ (“Apes of Wrath”?) nor “Rocky Horror Show” – neither profound nor campy – and the score isn’t especially memorable. But both deserve a vigorous defense.
Jack Thorne (the wizard of a writer who turned Harry Potter into a Tony-winning play) has delivered a relatively faithful version of the original story by Merian C. Cooper, the producer and director of the 1933 film. Underhanded impresario Carl Denham (Eric William Morris) kidnaps Kong from Skull Island, with the help of aspiring star Ann Darrow (the splendid Christiani Pitts), to exhibit him in New York. The big gorilla breaks loose, wreaks havoc, and meets his end atop the newly built Empire State Building.
But if it is not one of those “boldly re-imagined” takes on a classic, showing the true darkness underneath, “King Kong” does make an effort to capture the era in which it is set, the Great Depression. In the opening number, Ann, intent on stardom, is newly arrived in New York, where workers ride through the air on crane hooks (as they did in the photographs of the construction of the Empire State Building) and beams criss-cross the city. The city’s skyscrapers go up even as its citizens go hungry. Ann sings:
The market dropped and dollars turned to cents
In central park they’re livin’ out of tents
And still the city reaches for the sky
At the same time, Thorne smartly updates “King Kong” to reflect 21st century sensibilities: Gone are the African natives, and any hint of racism; it also feels like a sly casting choice to hire Pitts, who is African-American. Gone also is the sappy romance, and any hint of misogyny. Pitts is no screaming Fay Wray; she is woman, hear her roar, literally. There is an amusing scene where Ann matches Kong roar for roar, perplexing him. Rather than Kong’s victim, she is his advocate, and (almost) his savior. “You’re not a damsel in distress,” Carl says to Ann at one point (perhaps for the sake of audiences too dim to have picked up on the feminist spin.) “You’re a warrior.”
If this “King Kong” resists camp, there are several savory moments of meta-theatrical wit. When Kong breaks his shackles while on display, for example, the curtain abruptly falls and Carl comes out to announce to the audience that there are some “technical difficulties.”
Still, yes, this IS more or less your grandfather’s “King Kong.” The original film, which relied on special effects that were awe-inspiring for its day, tells one of the best known stories in popular culture, remade and adapted repeatedly over the past 85 years, most recently in 2017. (There are three versions available currently on Netflix.) Anybody attending a show entitled “King Kong” and expecting “The Iceman Cometh” needs to get out more.
What about the score? The dramatic instrumental music by composers Marius de Vries and the one-named Justice enhances the excitement in such numbers as “The Cobra Fight,” “Kong’s Capture,” “Empire Ascent” and “Air War.” And the songs by Eddie Perfect are an appealing, eclectic mix of jazz, Broadway ballad and pop, brought home by a talented ensemble executing some catchy if standard Broadway choreography by Drew McOnie, who is also the director. One of the songs, “Queen of New York,” is hip enough to have been made into a decent music video, which shows off just how terrific Pitts is.
Perfect’s songs are perfectly adequate, but I’ll go further: They are the right fit. I feel it would have been a waste to have created lyrics as sophisticated as Stephen Sondheim’s or melodies as hummable as Jerry Herman’s for a special effects-heavy show about a big gorilla.
The merits or demerits of the script and the score are almost beside the point. Call me simple – the puppet is enough for me.
The effort to bring that puppet to life is extraordinary, unprecedented, and the payoff is glorious. Ten puppeteers (wonderfully listed in the program as members of “King’s Company”) control the body and massive limbs of a creature that looms 20 feet high and weighs upwards of 2,000 pounds. Jon Hoche is credited as the “Voice of Kong,” Gavin Robins as the “Kong/aerial movement director.” Three members of the ensemble are assigned as “voodoo operators.” When Kong is racing through the jungle, or rushing down the streets of New York, or desperately climbing the Empire State Building, the effect rendered by the first-rate design team is gasp-inducing, dizzying, dazzling. But the expressiveness of Kong’s face – the angry baring of his teeth, the baffled wrinkling of his upper lip, the look of betrayal in his eyes – is in its own way just as breathtaking.
A historical note: There was a musical on Broadway in 1980 entitled “Censored Scenes from King Kong,” in which star Carrie Fisher got to say the line “What a load of banana oil.” It ran for only five regular performances. (The ape makes no appearance except in the title; the plot of the self-described “comic extravaganza” concerned a journalist investigating the rumor that scenes cut from the 1933 movie contained secret information for German agents during World War II.) “King Kong” is now on Broadway for real, and if it’s banana oil, go ahead and drink it in.
Click on any photograph by Joan Marcus or Matthew Murphy to see it enlarged.
Written by Jack Thorne, score by Marius de Vries, songs by Eddie Perfect
Directed and choreographed by Drew McOnie.
Creature designed by Sonny Tilders
Peter England (Scenic and Projection Design), Roger Kirk (Costume Design), Peter Mumford (Lighting Design), Peter Hylenski (Sound Design), Gavin Robins(Aerial and King Kong Movement Director) and Tom Watson (Hair Design). David Caddick is Music Supervisor and Eldad Guetta is Associate Music Arranger.
Cast: Christiani Pitts as Ann Darrow, Eric William Morris as Carl Denham, Erik Lochtefeld as Lumpy.
Rory Donovan as Captain Englehorn, Harley Jay as Barman, Casey Garvin as Fake Carl, Jon Hoche as Voice of Kong
King’s Company: Mike Baerga, Rhaamell Burke-Missouri, Jōvan Dansberry, Casey Garvin, Gabriel Hyman,Marty Lawson, Roberto Olvera, Khadija Tariyan, Lauren Yalango-Grant, and David Yijae.
Ensemble: Ashley Andrews, Chloë Campbell, Leroy Church, Peter Chursin, Kayla Davion, Christopher Hampton Grant, James T. Lane, Jonathan Christopher MacMillan, Danny Miller, Brittany Marcell Monachino, Jennifer Noble, Kristen Faith Oei, Eliza Ohman, Jaquez André Sims, Clay Thomson, Jena VanElslander, Scott Austin Weber, Jacob Williams, Warren Yang
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including an intermission.
Tickets: $49- $175