True, King Kong, aside from its technical achievements—more of that below—probably won’t wind up in theater history books as a major artistic advance, but it still has a lot to offer. It’s no Dear Evan Hansen or The Band’s Visit—two recent American musicals of high quality—and doesn’t claim to be, but it’s as entertaining as Head Over Heels (if less tawdry) and The Prom (if very much less show-bizzy self-referential).
Based on the famous 1933 film, King Kong the musical follows that plot fairly closely with a few telling punch ups, such as changing the lead actress from a pale, screeching blonde to a more powerful but equally down on her luck, young black woman called Ann Darrow. As in the original, she is first seen as a pathetic fighter wandering the streets of a friendless New York City, aiming to survive as well as prove herself during the Great Depression.
Played by the tough-but-tender Christiani Pitts, most recently in A Bronx Tale, this newcomer to a dark, thirties’ New York is somehow able to hold her own against the star of the show, the huge mechanical puppet of Kong and the over-eager, fast-talking, Barnum-like film director Carl Denham (Eric William Morris) who orchestrates the daring adventure that leads to the discovery and imprisonment of Kong.
On the positive side:
Designed by Johnny Tilders, the puppet Kong is phenomenal, a 20-foot tall, 2,000 pound marionette operated by the ten-person King’s Company, members of the cast assigned to operating the arms, legs and body of Kong, with the facial expressions controlled by exacting machinery that endows this artificial creation with real emotions. The roaring and other vocalizations are amplifications of the offstage voice of Jon Hoche. The results are not just fascinating, but eminently entertaining and even moving.
The performances of Ms. Pitts and Erik Lochtefeld as a character named Lumpy are first rate. Somehow Lochtefeld turns his “aw shucks” lackey to Denham into a touching figure with a real emotional spine.
Peter England’s scenic and projection designs pull the audience into New York City circa 1931, and the prehistoric Skull Island, although the living vines, portrayed by dancers, are quite a silly touch. Watching Kong run down a New York street after escaping from his theater/prison is fascinating and all-involving as are the visuals of the ship, Queen of New York, sailing to Skull Island.
Director Drew McOnie’s choreography is muscular and impressive, particularly the opening number, “The Dance of New York” in which he communicates the tensions and energy of period NYC and the “Building the Boat” number which combines England’s jigsaw scenery with McOnie’s movements.
Roger Kirk’s costumes, which range from working stiff overalls to colorful stage duds, work well communicating both character and period.
On the negative side:
The score by Marius de Vries (music) and Eddie Perfect (songs) is more serviceable than memorable, although a few stabs at period pastiche work well. Christopher Jahnke’s arrangements pump up the songs enough to fill the theater, particularly Ann’s song to Kong, “Full Moon Lullaby” and the energetic “The Mutiny” when the crew members of SS Queen of New York express their frustration with Denham, but do not raise the quality of the music and lyrics.
Eric William Morris is too much of a lightweight to portray the egotistical, driven Denham. His eventual comeuppance isn’t as dramatically effective as it ought to be since he is just a victim of his own hubris, a small man who goes down way too quickly. He registers as more an eager-beaver than a ruthless, kill-his-mother-for-a-break showman.
Jack Thorne’s libretto could use more wit and specificity. He and the songwriters get the second-rate, pastiche aspects of the show with which Denham surrounds his theatrical presentation of “the beast” (which humorously includes a muscular Fake Carl played by Casey Garvin), but the book just chugs along with little subtlety.
King Kong is a diverting show, one with a high entrance fee to be sure, but not the total washout others may lead the public to believe.
King Kong (through August 18, 2019)
Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway at 53rd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets: call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.kingkongbroadway.com
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission