KING KONG (Broadway Theatre): Going ape on Broadway

KING KONG review Broadway
Photo by Matthew Murphy

KING KONG is going ape on Broadway. The book by Jack Thorne is new, not a replay of ’33 or ‘05 King Kong movies. The musical opens with working men being lowered by ropes and cranes into a construction zone where they are building New York City – up up up! As director and choreographer, Drew McOnie interprets the script, brings it to the stage, and creates genius movement and dance. Marius de Vries’s score of sometimes soaring orchestral music is accompanied by riveting electronic music and sound design (Peter Hylenski) and pleasant but unmemorable songs by Eddie Perfect, Justice, and others.

Stagecraft is king in KONG. “Dramatic” doesn’t even come close to conveying the startlingly original complexity of the rich visuals and projection design (Peter England), lighting (Peter Mumford) and video (Artists in Motion). And then there’s the Monster (creature designer Sonny Tilders, movement Gavin Robins, face Danny Miller, voice Jon Hoche) and a crew of King Kong operators and visible puppeteers), plus ensembles of aerialists and dancers. Killer spectacle outshines wimpy dialogue that could use more linguistic rhythm and richness of wit.

Ann (Christiani Pitts), a beautiful woman with a powerful voice, sometimes has the chance to belt it out. With more agency than the old “damsels in distress,” she’s certainly no victim. A farm girl come to the big city she plans to become the Queen of New York. But first she must endure her share of rejections. She can’t find a break at auditions:“Next! Next!” Somewhere between confident and self-obsessed, Ann knows what she wants. Carl Denham (Eric William Morris) a self-serving, and reckless film director, knows how to play to her ego. Ann will star in his movie once they catch her co-star. The film director takes her on a boat ride to Skull Island. Along with the boat’s captain (fine-voiced Rory Donovan), a film crew, and Lumpy, the ship’s cook (Eric Lochtefeld), they sail off to capture … cue the music… KING KONG.

Once we recover from the sonic boom of his footfalls we become involved with the psychological complexity of this fantastic animatronic monster, whose face registers the sincerest of ‘human’ feelings and the smallest of emotional changes. And he roars in fluent gorilla, and totally understands English. Through his enormity, his kindly disposition and his heroic capacity to suffer, King Kong unleashes an over-the-top emotional response in the audience. Only King Kong and Lumpy the cook evoke pity and admiration. Lumpy, the only really sympathetic human, endears himself through his capacity to feel for others. What Ann evokes is more complex, maybe more complex than intended. She feels to the extent that her self-interest allows. Not an innocent, she realizes her own complicity in the film company’s capture and exploitation of the creature. She had briefly protested, but went along with the plan because it would make her a star. Sensitivity isn’t her strong suit. She later explains to the blameless captive monster— the one  she sold out— how her world has changed: She’s a star now, empowered. While she feels sorry for him, her guilt doesn’t run deep.

Christiani Pitts & King Kong. Photo Joan Marcus
Christiani Pitts & King Kong. Photo Joan Marcus.

There’s monkey overexposure in the second act. And later a crawl up a tall building with a close-up on top still needs the impact an iconic long shot of the monster and the girl on top of the Empire State Building.

Finally and importantly, in the closing song, The Wonder, Ann sings that she has “found her humanity.” Yet the shallowness of her compassion is more a rejection of humanity and moral responsibility. There’s little remorse. What’s disturbing is the unsolved problem of character. She’s gotten over it, but hasn’t learned anything. She sings with a chorus: “Get what we want, get what we want.” She’s got what she wanted, and at the end remains the same all-about-herperson she was in the opening, just more successful. In KING KONG the locus of humanity lies in the monster and the monstrousness resides in some humans.

A proscenium theater is a necessity for this particular show partly because it harks back to the 30s, partly for tech reasons, and also because the story slyly implicates the audience, as a captured giant-sized gorilla is brought in for our entertainment. It’s truly a huge experience. The most remarkable and unusual high tech stagecraft is paired with some wonderful music and sound. Despite its problems with dialogue, songs, lyrics, and details like the humanity issue, KING KONG is appealing and sometimes outstanding. I wouldn’t want to miss it.

The big question for us in Philadelphia is: Will KING KONG be coming to our town? Hint: Lead producer Carmen Pavlovic said that “the company is about the long game.” It is going to tour. One producer assessed that it might be in two years. Lets hope we’re on the list. A touring production, however,  because of a somewhat reduced scenic design touring package, won’t be as complex as the original production.

[The Broadway Theatre,1681 Broadway, New York, NY] November 8 – Closing date open.

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