Christiani Pitts in ‘King Kong.’ (Photo: Matthew Murphy)
Before the curtain rises on King Kong, audiences see an out-of-focus (at least the night I was in attendance) projected silhouette of Kong towering over Ann Darrow, a woman plucked from the streets of New York City to become a star. I adjusted my glasses, tilted my head up and down, then to the side. I squinted, too, but no matter how I altered my view, the image was slightly off-kilter. Two-and-a-half hours later, I was still doing the same thing.
There’s been plenty of buzz about the $35 million puppet extravaganza that opened last night at The Broadway Theatre, but little commentary about the score (Marius de Vries), book (Jack Thorne), or songs (Eddie Perfect). Powerhouse creatives like Marsha Norman, Craig Lucas and Jason Robert Brown were all, at one point or another, connected with the project in earlier incarnations, but jumped ship or were forced to walk the plank.
Ultimately, the SS Wanderer made its way to Skull Island to capture the giant silverback and bring him back to Broadway in the form of a 20-foot-tall, 2,000-pound gorilla. A ten-member company affectionately called The King’s Company (comprised of eight men and two women) operates the puppet from the stage floor through a series of intricate cables, while three Voodoo Operators sit in a soundproof control booth in the back of the mezzanine to bring the beast’s animatronics to life. It’s a technological marvel to behold, but one that’s overshadowed by a lack of chemistry or stage presence among the leading actors, save Christiani Pitts as Ann Darrow.
Of the informal poll I took among millennial friends and colleagues (including a few cast members I interviewed for other stories), none had seen the original 1933 film featuring the helpless blonde starlet played by Fay Wray. The impact of Ms. Pitts’ presence as an African American leading lady and the reconceived character from pouty eye candy to a woman determined to break the glass ceiling shouldn’t be diminished, in spite of the cringe-worthy lyrics she’s saddled with. (“One dress, and yeah I guess I’m a mess, but I won’t rest, ‘til I’m the queen of New York.”)
Echoing a young Josephine Baker, this version of Ann is lean and leggy and meant for the spotlight. Film director Carl Denham (a painfully uncharismatic Eric William Morris) discovers her in a diner and whisks her off on an adventure to Skull Island to star in a new movie, luring her by saying, “The world has lost its sense of wonder, Ann. People are grounded in the safe, the possible.”
We suffer through what feels like a real-time sailing across the ocean, in which you may need Dramamine to endure Peter England’s undulating scenic design combined with projections by Artists in Motion. Then there are the dancing vines that entwine themselves around Ann. (Yes, dancing vines.) Finally, the visual noise stops and we hear Kong’s deep breaths and witness his slow, breathtaking emergence from the shadows.
The rest of the show is paint-by-numbers:
Kong kidnaps Ann.
Kong fights a serpent.
Ann nurses Kong’s wounds.
Kong is captured.
Kong stars in a live show that looks like a 1970s Las Vegas act.
Don’t forget about Lumpy (a “why am I here?” Erik Lochtefeld), Denham’s sidekick who takes a liking to Ann because she reminds him of his dead daughter. Her name was Maggie, in case you were wondering. But you won’t wonder, because the secondary plot is a chance to rest your eyes.
Kong escapes. (With the help of Ann.)
Kong climbs to the top of the Empire State Building.
The Empire State Building looks like an inverted colander.
Things don’t turn out well for Kong, or the audience.
Kong’s demise concludes in what looks like a game of laser tag.
Audience obligatorily claps. The puppet gets a standing ovation.
Director/choreographer Drew McOnie (who also staged Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom on the West End earlier this season) was tapped to try to make magic out of the motley material. His movement vocabulary is fresh and athletic, purposefully anachronistic at times, and at others reflecting the era with echoes of foxtrot and other popular styles. Obligatory tumbling passes also make an appearance, but at his core, Mr. McOnie’s strength lies in his visceral, muscular exploration of the human form.
King Kong’s greatest accomplishment is in its most intimate moments when we can revel in the animatronic wonder of Kong’s facial expressions. Those larger-than-life sad eyes will melt your heart, a haunting reminder of what King Kong has long represented: a disturbing allegory for racism and oppression. But when Kong has to run like a real New Yorker trying to cross Fifth Avenue before the light changes, no amount of technology or rappelling actors can create the pace needed to make it believable. Instead, he lumbers along, as if he’s stumbled out of Rudy’s dive bar at 3 a.m. after one too many Bud Lights, wishing, like us, that this was all a dream.
1681 Broadway, New York City
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor and chief critic. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.