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Theatre in Review: King Kong (Broadway Theatre)

Christiani Pitts and Kong. Photo: Joan Marcus.

The newest, biggest star on Broadway needs an entourage of at least a dozen to prop him up and keep him going. I don't mean this in a bad way; it's merely to acknowledge the extraordinary achievement that is the title character of the new musical King Kong. As big as a small skyscraper, with limbs as long as football fields, a scowl that can stop traffic, and a roar that can probably be heard in the bowels of the New York subway system, he is one big ape to reckon with. He is also the result of an extraordinary melding of technological innovation and puppetry craft, requiring automated motion control and ten puppeteers (known as The King's Company) to manipulate him. Their combined efforts pay off magnificently: In addition to natural movements, the ape is capable of a variety of subtle expressions that many an actor might envy.

When Kong dominates the stage, or when he shares a scene with Christiani Pitts as Ann Darrow, the show's heroine, theatre magic is made. The ape's first appearance -- seen initially only as a set of teeth emerging from the darkness -- is a moment of pure excitement, climaxing with him running furiously, surrounded by a sequence of fast-moving abstract video imagery that adds to the velocity of the staging. His battle with a giant serpent is good, old-fashioned movie fun, rather like seeing an old Ray Harryhausen picture. And, during the lengthy sequence that follows, in which Ann earns his trust by patching his wounds, the illusion of two distinct beings getting to know each other is complete. A bit when Kong prowls all the way downstage and glares at the audience rightly earns gasps; equally stunning is the effect when the curtain rises to reveal Kong, in chains, his spirit shattered, about to go on display in a Broadway theatre. And rest assured that the famous final sequence, atop the Empire State Building, is as vertiginous as anyone could expect. Sonny Tilders, who created the Kong puppet, and Gavin Robins, the Kong/aerial movement director, have achieved something utterly unique.

Kong isn't the only accomplished aspect of the production's design. Peter England's scenery deploys a relatively small number of grand gestures -- arrangements of girders, a stage floor that rises to become the deck of a ship, a dimensional jungle drop that is like a spider web writ large -- against a curved projection screen that features gorgeous, painterly images of New York side streets, Times Square, ocean vistas, the cove of Skull Island (Kong's home), and the cave where Kong resides. (The content was created by the firm Artists in Motion.) The use of a curved screen allows England to create camera pans and dissolve effects that, in addition to being eye-catching, facilitate the show's movement. The lighting designer, Peter Mumford, who is on a roll this season with his work on Girl from the North Country and The Ferryman, makes an enormous contribution, carving out tableaux with sidelight, creating shadowy theatrical looks with footlights, and using beams to simulate the effects of bullets strafing Kong during the climax. Peter Hylenski's sound design indelibly establishes Kong's presence before we see him, using thudding footfalls and disconcerting roars. The entire design/technology side of the production is a major achievement and is likely to fascinate any reader of Lighting&Sound America.

About the rest of King Kong, however, I have a few questions: Why is everyone in New York constantly executing jazz combinations as they go about their business? More specifically, why are burly dock workers constantly lifting each other, as if they studied with Balanchine or, perhaps, belong to some early iteration of the Mattachine Society? Given that Jack Thorne, the book's author, has strained every nerve to make sure that Ann is no passive Hollywood heroine but instead positively dripping with agency, why did he not tackle the flimsy plot premise, in which Ann hops onboard a steamer, destined for parts unknown, based on a vague offer of a film role from a total stranger who, minutes before, offered her a sandwich. (I know; it's the Depression and times are tough for would-be just off the farm, but still.) Similarly, how is it that the ship sets sail without the captain knowing the final destination? (Carl Denham, the director of the vaguely conceived film -- which has no script or crew -- refuses to reveal it. This cues another faintly homoerotic production number, in which the sailors show their anger at Carl by arranging themselves in strange clusters.) How does Carl know that Kong can be found on Skull Island? And, while we're on the topic, how come Kong is the only such ape in existence? Is he the product of parthenogenesis?

The questions pile up: How is it that she comes on board the ship without a suitcase, only to discover that Carl has provided her with an ensemble consisting of froufrou-laden gowns seemingly lifted from a Jean Harlow screwball comedy? (There is an allusion to another young lady who preceded Ann in Carl's attentions, but this is just another plot point raised only to be dropped.) Why does Ann appear at a sweaty dance rehearsal dressed in a cocktail outfit? And why does the production number that is supposed to cue Kong's spectacular Broadway debut look like it was dropped from the original production of Dames at Sea? And -- this one really nags at me -- why does Ann, having betrayed Kong -- allowing him to be captured and put on display -- and watched him die, sing a number that is basically a tribute to her own self-realization? Personally, I think she's looking at ten to twelve years on a charge of reckless endangerment for her involvement in the whole affair. After all, someone is going to have to pay for all that cleanup.

As you can tell, there's a certain disconnect here. It's tempting to say that King Kong is another case of the cart leading the horse, with a carelessly assembled story and score designed only to support the technology, but that hardly seems the case. Thorne was responsible, in whole or in part, for Let the Right One In and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child -- two of my top theatregoing experiences in recent years -- and the producers hired two composers, Marius de Vries for the movie-ish underscoring and Eddie Perfect for the regular music and lyrics. But the book, which, despite some strenuous political correction, makes little attempt to improve on the film -- an eighty-six-year-old piece of pulp entertainment -- and the songs, some of which are distinctly odd, do nothing to fill out the paper-doll characters. (Perfect's solo contributions don't even have a nodding acquaintance with de Vries' compositions or the number on which they collaborated.) And yet this is the third creative team to tackle this property since it originally opened in Sydney. Is what is onstage at the Broadway really better than, say, the discarded version featuring a book by Marsha Norman and score by Jason Robert Brown? Surely it must have displayed a much more solid grasp of musical theatre craft.

Pitts throws herself into the role of Ann, which involves a series of intense interactions with Kong and handling various perilous situations, enough to qualify her for the title of Hardest-Working Woman in Show Business. But the strain is showing: At the performance I attended, her voice sounded worn from belting every single note. Eric William Morris plays Carl -- a role that barely seems to have been written -- as a smiling sociopath, which is about right. Erik Lochtefeld is his usual professional self as Carl's sad-case assistant, who silently yearns for Ann -- she reminds him of his late daughter -- and dispenses little homilies about the right thing to do. Drew Mc Onie's staging is thrilling in the action scenes and flattish when characters actually have to speak to each other; his choreography, as suggested above, is often risible.

And yet, if you have kids under twelve, King Kong will most likely provide them with thrills they will remember for years to come. Lighting&Sound America types will want to study it, closely. And for fans of theatrical curiosities, this is a highly collectible attraction. You can't say King Kong is a good musical, but it is a fascinating oddity, and, despite the largely negative press, I wouldn't count the big guy out yet. Is it possible to give a puppet the Tony for Best Actor in a Musical? -- David Barbour

(19 November 2018)

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