‘King Kong’ on Broadway: A Great Ape Deserves a Greater Story
‘King Kong’ has landed on Broadway in a production featuring a stunning, terrifying model ape. The spectacle is something to behold, the musical created around it less so.
The monster is the thing in King Kong on Broadway, and everything that isn’t the monster is mere padding until we hear the big hairy one’s teasing, guttural roar—and then finally see him in his thudding flesh. So, what can you make this 20-foot, 2,000 pound, black, hairy creature, magnificently designed by Sonny Tilders, do to command attention for over two hours?
Answer: You tease us with those roars, then you make him appear in the most thrilling way imaginable in the middle of a jungle, then you make him run, then you make him move silkily, then you make him have a fight with a gigantic snake that’s also a puppet. And of course you have him, via Peter England’s stunning projections, eventually run like an angry lunatic through the streets of New York City.
If you have come for spectacle, you’ll love (as I did, with a big, very stupid grin on my face) the impressive and thrilling feats of design and puppetry directed and choreographed by Drew McOnie, who I must presume—given the exertions of his leading ape—has a chiropractor on 24-hour call.
The problem with King Kong—which has cost $35 million to mount and 10 years to bring to the Broadway stage—is that the humans on stage do not know what to do when King Kong is elsewhere (smashing up buildings? eating leaves? ape-scaping?), and the production doesn’t know what to do with them either.
One friend wondered why it was a musical; that a play could power the narrative more strongly. But the monster is so loud, maybe the producers felt the literal volume of the play was better suited to music. Marius de Vries’ score and Christopher Jahnke’s orchestrations ably and dramatically rise to the fearsome monster in their midst. Peter Mumford’s lighting is equally clever and atmospheric.
The story isn’t so different from the film—it is set in 1931—although its heroine has been refreshingly updated in manner and de-simpered.
It does take a while to see the monster, and you feel that time keenly because the heart of the show really isn’t in the human drama it sets up pretty laboriously before the hairy one’s hello. Ann Darrow (Christiani Pitts) has come to New York to be a star, and the first thing is to get into a busy dance sequence on those teeming streets and unfriendly rehearsal rooms: hustle, hustle.
We know she’s nobody’s wide-eyed ingenue when she punches a scuzzball trying it on with her. She’s a modern Ann Darrow in 193os dress, and Pitts animates her with strength and warmth, as she sings (beautifully) and dances alongside a talented and hardworking ensemble.
Her pluck gets her noticed by the villain, Carl Denham (Eric William Morris), a film director who wants to use her in his new movie. Just like in the previous movies, Denham ends up heading to the mysterious Skull Island to shoot his movie.
On pre-Kong attention-retaining duty, the production creates a beautiful visual of the SS Wanderer leaving Manhattan, with an ingeniously rising stage and beautiful projections of water and sky, away from the dank and gray landscape of New York’s warrenlike streets. The ship is under the command of Captain Englehorn (Rory Donovan), who has been applying himself assiduously in the ship’s unseen free weights room.
Enter the big, hairy one, and what an entrance it is. The ghostly roars (voiced by Jon Hoche; get that man some warm lemon and honey) that have tantalized us become extremely loud ones, then we see flashes of teeth—and then there he is in all his Kong glory, and what a creature he is; a huge, black, furry, muscle-bound marionette ready to rumble.
Operating him, dressed in black, are the “King’s Company/Ensemble,” and they should be named in full because they are the true stars of this show: Mike Baerga, Rhaamell Burke-Missouri, Jovan Dansberry, Casey Garvin, Gabriel Hyman, Marty Lawson, Roberto Olvera, Khadija Tariyan, Lauren Yalango-Grant, and David Yijae. As well as their supreme effort, as The New York Times reported, “an automation operator lifts and lowers the ape’s entire body using winches connected by steel cables to a giant gantry crane in the theater’s fly space overhead.”
The King’s Company clamber over Kong’s structure, they manipulate his movements, they somehow cling to and dart around this huge rock face and don’t get in the way or get crushed. Sometimes in beautiful physical synthesis they are like a balletic Greek chorus in thrall to their master, whom they help endow with a range of emotions too. (When Kong is sad, so are we.) Pitts, of course, has to be scooped up by the ape, and to do this and keep acting and singing deserves a Tony for sheer multi-tasking.
As for the relationship of Ann and Kong, we do buy them as loyal compadres. Their meet-cute is witty. Kong’s feelings go deeper, it seems; his growls become very mournful and Chewbacca-like at certain moments. They both feel trapped by men, misunderstood, objectified, and only really safe around each other. They are both being used.
Pitts’ songs are beautifully sung, and her character’s assertiveness is welcome, but the play doesn’t know what to do with her relationship with Denham. He blackmails her to attract the ape into the open, so Kong can be stunned and shipped back to New York to become a freak-show attraction.
But Denham’s villainy is half-hearted, and so is the supposed moral quandary Ann is in: Should she betray her big new hairy buddy to become the star Denham promises? Matt Thorne’s script introduces Lumpy (Erik Lochtefeld), a longtime Denham troubleshooter, who I think is supposed to act as the play’s moral fulcrum.
But we don’t see that much of Lumpy, and perhaps the strangest decision is to give him the climactic confrontation with Denham, rather than Ann. The weakness of this confrontation is painful. Its subtle restraint has no place around such bombast. Far better is the silly play within a play crafted by Denham around the Kong dramas to pull more punters in, and starring a vain, temperamental hunk as himself (the witty Casey Garvin).
But really, so what. Visually, King Kong himself is stunning. Just wait until he starts rising up in the air and then later clambering to the front of the stage, producing completely understandable shrieks from the front row. And of course when Kong goes totally ape, escaping from captivity and climbing the Empire State Building, and then finally confronting machine gun fire from airplanes, all the applause and cries of wonder are merited.
As pure spectacle, King Kong thrillingly delivers. The songs are fine rather than memorable and the story simple and fluent rather than dense and chewy. But really, neither has to do much more. This is all about the hulking, crouching, flying, not-very-hidden King Kong—and the ape has totally got this.
King Kong is at the Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway, booking through April 14, 2019.