By ALAN SMASON
For those of you living under a rock, King Kong opened on Broadway last Thursday (Nov. 8) and, as one would expect, most every critic panned the newest addition to the Great White Way as being shallow or lacking in theatrical achievement in song and dance.
In many ways they are right. The songs are certainly not familiar at the musical’s end and the leading stars of the production – Christiani Pitts as Anne Darrow and Eric William Morris as Carl Denham – while laudable in acting, sing and dance well enough to be believable and authentic to their roles. Even Erik Loctefeld, who plays Lumpy, a role meant to give some humor and humanity to the other leads, plays his part well.
Yet, they all pale in comparison to the looming presence of the animatronic, 25-foot-tall creature moved in synchronicity by a team of eight, ebony-clad puppeteers.
There is another team of four professionals sequestered in a high berth, who is responsible for moving Kong’s eyes, the musculature in his face, his mouth and, via a series of specially-constructed electronic sound machines, converting the microphone sounds from an audio artist into growls, grunts and roars in real time.
The score by veteran composer Marius de Vries builds excitement and is a perfect compliment to the projections and massive scenic design by Peter England, whose wife serves as the lead producer of the venture. Then there is the book by Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts 1 and 2). It is taut and strips a lot of the earlier movie characters away to concentrate the tension between the three main characters and the giant gorilla.
We can also talk about the brilliant choreography put into place by director Drew McOnie. McOnie, who as an established choreographer, approached dance as a means of moving the action along. Again he accomplishes this and much of the action of the characters moving ahead in real time.
It is for that reason that the ensemble cast of players are all for the most part representative of the outside world, whether it be on board the ship that takes them to Skull Island or along the streets of a 1930s-era New York. As mentioned earlier, the songs by Eddie Perfect are big enough to reflect on the action, but leave a lot to be desired.
But, again, it’s not the songs. It’s not the dancing. It’s not the acting. Nor is the lighting or sound design, which are both top notch. No, the reason that audiences will want to go see this work is for the sheer spectacle of it. It is nothing less than a guilty pleasure. King Kong is believable as a living, breathing creature and the rendering of this character through technical wizardry is nothing short of unbelievable.
When the great beast stands tall and moves his way towards the stage edge, there is no one is the venue whose heart does not skip a beat or whose breath does not get caught up in his throat. We know it’s all being rendered by the puppeteers and the engineers on a guttural level, but the image and the sounds with most effective projections and lighting overwhelm the senses. No matter what reason is employed and rational thought realized, this King Kong is very much alive!
When it all boils down what makes this show so attractive to the masses will be the same factors that make monster truck shows and demolition derbies popular. This is an exciting joyride on a scale that has never been seen on Broadway before and, depending on whether the investors are repaid, may never be seen again.
But for those that are not critics and far less forgiving, this is going to be a show that will be a rite of passage for many. It is not unlike the train wreck that we know is about to happen. We cannot turn our heads away even though we know it is destructive.
There are a couple of places in the script where the image of a living, breathing King Kong dissipates. In particular the scene where the giant ape fights a giant serpent to protect Ann Darrow (Christiani Pitts) has the fight literally running out of steam near the end. That was the biggest moment where the giant ape failed to achieve the animation his creative team had designed. Also, the projections when Kong is climbing the Empire State Building were not nearly as effective as the other bits in the show.
Pretty much, though, everywhere else, King Kong is a technical triumph.
King Kong continues to play at The Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway, between W. 52nd and W. 53rd Street in New York City. For ticket information, click here.