Eighth wonder of the world? King Kong probably isn’t even the eighth wonder of Broadway – those kids in The Ferryman aren’t giving up their spots anytime soon – but the big ape does provide some roaring good thrills.
Picking over Hollywood’s Depression Era beauty-and-the-beast tale for what still works and ditching what doesn’t – the casting of the African American Christiani Pitts as Ann Darrow swiftly does away with the freighted Fay Wray blonde beauty ideal – director Drew McOnie has captured a wildly impressive 1.2-ton puppet, even if the musical surrounding it is considerably less memorable.
So let’s cut to the chase. The monkey in this reported $35 million production is amazing, a 20-foot-tall hybrid of animatronics, puppetry and human performance. Fifteen puppeteers, mostly onstage, work the beast with ropes, poles and pulleys – a show in themselves as they slide down cables like ninjas. Each roar and growl is voiced by an effects-assisted offstage actor – Jon Hoche – giving the creature immediate, live responses.
Kong’s facial expressions – every teeth-baring show of force, each wary look of confused affection, moans of pain – are enchanting, and at least as convincing as any bit of CGI or stop-motion committed to film over the decades. When the beast finally raises itself up fully, leaning ever so threateningly over the first rows of the audience, the effect truly is chilling. Nervous laughter followed by applause was the response at the performance I attended.
Though Kong can be hoisted quickly up and out of sight to the fly space above the stage, his travels onstage – running, leaping, sometimes through jungle, sometimes Manhattan – are suggested by the puppet’s in-place movements and laser-sharp lights streaking by. Think the final scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Alas, the only other monster on stage doesn’t measure up – a giant serpent that brought, to my mind anyway, memories of Mummenschanz. In fact, the entire enterprise could be scarier. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was all the recent proof necessary that kids don’t need mollycoddling when it comes to stage thrills. Kong too often goes the Disney route, despite sharing a book writer with Potter – Jack Thorne. There’s not so much as the suggestion of any human-chomping.
The musical opens – 40 minutes or so before Kong makes his first appearance – in ’30s New York, nicely conveyed through film projections of the old city, as if the characters are visiting some black-and-white melodrama of the great, rising metropolis. The first image we get is of men descending on construction cranes, a steel jungle taking shape before our eyes.
Soon we meet Carl Denham (the terrific Eric William Morris), a P.T. Barnum meets Oz figure gathering a film crew for a mysterious project far away on Skull Island. After spotting and casting beautiful, feisty Ann Darrow (Pitts, fitting the role well), a breadline-walking, down on her luck actress, Denham & Co. hit the high seas.
You know the rest. Denham, Darrow and a reluctant crew eventually reach Skull Island – accomplished here mostly via some projections. Beauty gets captured by the beast, beast gets captured by the director, and a stage debut goes terribly wrong. Biplanes ensue.
King Kong doesn’t tinker with that basic outline, but crucial details have been changed for modern sensibilities. The stereotypical inhabitants of Skull Island are nowhere in sight, replaced by sentient flora that binds Ann for the big sacrifice. Why Denham doesn’t save himself and New York City a lot of trouble by re-potting a few of these creatures for transport isn’t addressed.
But the biggest change comes in Darrow herself. Pitts’ Ann, if she does say so herself, doesn’t do “damsel in distress.” Nor does she scream – she roars back, a reaction that comes off pretty silly, made even more so by some cartoony sound effects (Peter Hylenski’s sound design is, otherwise, loud and excellent).
The quick bond between Ann and Kong – she only seems truly terrified when that Mummenschanz snake comes calling – makes for a kid-friendly Disney princess-power approach, undercutting the fright. A best pal shipmate named Lumpy (Erik Lochtefeld) adds yet a further note of Jiminy Cricket sentimentality.
And while there are #MeToo shadings – Denham, turning villainous, threatens Ann with career disaster unless she goes along with the plot to exploit and endanger her now beloved Kong – the most significant modernizing comes with a welcome, and fairly convincing, conservationist message, and the calling-out of humankind’s destruction of wildlife, even wildlife as menacing as Kong.
Unfortunately, the modernizing extends to the musical’s music. The songs by Eddie Perfect are mostly generic contemporary stage pop, with little hint of the ’30s-era setting. McOnie’s choreography tends toward energetic chorus numbers, and, as in the opening scenes of New Yorkers New Yorking, the dances are entertaining without being particularly notable.
The musical numbers certainly won’t keep you from wanting to get to the Kong stuff, which mostly pays off, as when the king finally climbs the Empire State Building – we see it from inside the building, as if we’re looking out the windows.
More often than not Marius de Vries’ score adds to the excitement, though certainly not all of the major Kong moments are staged as effectively as the Empire climb. Kong’s chained appearance at a New York theater comes off well, a fittingly meta touch (Denham boasts that Kong was never meant to be a film star) but his escape from the venue-with-the-venue is blundered. No spoilers on how it happens, but I can say that the reveal of a decimated New York makes little sense – from what we can see, as Kong bounds through midtown, New York has been hit by an asteroid, not a giant simian.
And I won’t give away details of the beast’s mighty, fatal fall, except to say that it works until it doesn’t. McOnie and Thorne make the mistake of taking the story a beat too far, ending the musical on a note of Ann’s self-empowerment. That’s nice and all, but there’s a big, dead gorilla somewhere out there who isn’t feeling so empowered. King Kong once again turns Disney Princess, when what’s wanted is a Scream Queen.