King Kong: A Review
There are two critical moments in the second act of King Kong. At the opening of the act we’re presented with a rehearsal for the show the New York audience will see when Kong is dragged there from his island home. It’s terrible. It’s meant to be laughable. The entire plot of the first act we had just endured is repeated with tacky props, overblown acting, everything that a production shouldn’t be. At the end of the staged rehearsal its director Carl Denham is barking instructions to everyone.
He then shouts to his badly performing imitator… “Fake Carl. Work on everything.”
The producers of the actual King Kong that’s playing at the Broadway theatre should have heeded the warning built into their own show. They really needed to work more on most everything before they opened. There is nothing traditional about this new King Kong. This is a modern take on the legendary monster myth about the famed and much misunderstood beast. This is not the usual musical either. This Kong is different and it’s in those differences that the beast lives and dies once again. The plot basically follows the first 1933 film with some supposedly necessary modern changes.
The story begins during the Great Depression and the early stages of the construction of the Empire State building. Obsessed film director Carl Denham, played by Eric William Morris, needs a star for his island adventure film. He finds ingenue Ann Darrow, played by Christiani Pitts, who’s hungry for both a career and a meal in a local diner. He quickly convinces her to board a boat filled with a ragtag crew of singing and dancing sailors. They then set course for the mysterious Skull Island where the expedition eventually finds her tall furry costar and future boyfriend. Kong is eventually captured and returned to New York for his Broadway debut and eventual downfall.
This thirty five million dollar stage musical production is a mighty mess. Making his Broadway debut director and choreographer Drew McOnie delivers unfocused leadership on both counts. The book by Jack Thorne of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child fame is ill conceived and a mere shadow of the original story and its tropes. Musically the score and orchestrations by Marius de Vries and Christopher Jahnke are lush and set the moods with just the right tones but the songs by Eddie Perfect are quickly forgettable.
The other important moment in the second act involves Kong himself. In a dramatic move the giant gorilla lumbers slowly and methodically to the edge of the stage and stands alone. This is a fully up close and personal interaction with his audience. Kong is powerful. His presence is unmistakable. His eyes are soulful. His teeth are sharp. His face can express itself as well as any actor on any stage. He looks at his admirers, reaches out into the audience, he grunts and chuffs, he growls until the rafters shake. In short, he proves that he’s more than capable of both endearing and frightening the crowd.
Designed by Sonny Tilders, the creature’s stats are equally impressive. Kong is a twenty-foot-tall, two thousand pound animatronic and marionette puppet. After two prototypes and four scale models the final version of Kong took a year to build by fifty specialists, including engineers, fabricators, electricians and digital artists. Fifteen servo motors of the same kind used in the NASA Mars rovers control his eyebrows, eyelids, nose, lips, and jaw. Inside Kong there are almost a thousand feet of cabling, fifteen hundred connections, and sixteen microprocessors.
Ten puppeteers known as the King’s Company bring all these mechanisms to life on stage. Dressed in black they operate the ropes and pulleys that are connected to him. They articulate his arms and legs as they move him about. While completely modern and sophisticated, they are using the ancient form of Bunraku on an epic scale to create the magnificent illusion. In a room backstage three other puppeteers of the same Company remotely control his facial expressions, muscular movements, and provide his live and commanding voice. Thirteen artists working together from two separate locations are the real stars of this show. This is the art of puppetry at its finest and the magic they create is outstanding.
King Kong is undeniably a spectacularly big bold spectacle. There are several truly awe-inspiring moments and they all belong to Kong, his team, and the production’s designers. There’s the opening construction visuals, the sea voyage to the island aboard the merchant ship, and Kong running and causing chaos through the streets of Manhattan. The sequence atop the Empire State Building is absolutely jaw dropping. With scenic design by Peter England, lighting design by Peter Mumford, and sound design by Peter Hylenski the world of King Kong comes to full life brilliantly. The set also includes an LED screen running the full width of the stage. At ninety feet wide and twenty-seven feet high its illuminated by five million individual pixels. It’s here that projection designer Peter England, and the designers and programmers at Artists in Motion, reign supreme in their ability to transport the viewer anywhere they wish.
The interesting thing about King Kong is that this imperfect version of his story is ultimately bullet proof. The shows faults are not really going to matter in the end. Its visual excellence will supersede everything else. Those that come are coming for Kong and they won’t be disappointed. True fans that are expecting more will come away saddened with the realization that the tremendous puppet deserves a better show around him. King Kong will probably reign for a long time but his legend will die a bit with each performance. In this edition beauty didn’t kill the beast. King Kong will die nightly at the hands of a lackluster production team.
Edward Medina is an active member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), where he serves on both the Membership and Diversity & Inclusion Committees. He is also a Drama Desk member. Edward welcomes comments at EdwardMedinaAuthor@gmail.com.
New York, NY 10019