Written by Jack Thorne, songs by Eddie Perfect, other music by Marius de Vries.
Reviewed by Robert Viagas
There has been talk of bringing the Australian musical spectacular King Kong to Broadway since 2010.
Now, through a possibly unprecedented combined effort of the Shubert Organization, the Nederlander Organization, Jujamcyn, the Ambassador Theatre Group and two dozen other above-the-title producers, the extravaganza (based on the classic 1933 film) is finally pounding its chest and bellowing at the Broadway Theatre. But not as primally as it needs to. ’Tis political correctness that kills this beast.
As in Oz, the star of the show is the colossal animatronic marionette/robot playing the title character, a two-story monster gorilla who is hunted and captured from the wild in Act I and hubristically brought to Manhattan to be exhibited to the public in Act II. But a force of nature like Kong can’t be kept in chains for long. By the end, Kong makes his epic climb up the Empire State Building where his final fate awaits him.
This unique creation deserves a detailed description. Twenty feet tall, he dominates the stage both with his overwhelming physical presence and, significantly, with his acting. Yes, his acting. He is operated by seven black-clad puppeteers who scurry around him, skillfully manipulating his body and limbs with their hands and with long ropes that act exactly like puppet strings. After a while your mind subtracts the puppeteers and you see only Kong. In addition, his mouth, eyes and facial muscles are operated by computer-run servos. Kong’s face is so large that wherever you sit in the theatre you can see his remarkably expressive facial expressions in the equivalent of a movie closeup. Alternately terrifying and heartbreaking, the expression of his emotions as he deals with these strange little human creature are the best part of King Kong.
This epic monster will undoubtedly go down in Broadway history. For many, the chance to experience it will be worth the ticket price.
Humanizing this force of nature is an amazing feat, but often undercuts the drama. To make the story more contemporary and politically correct, the creators monkeyed around with the characters, making the leading lady Ann Darrow (Christiani Pitts) more of a driver of the story. But that means she has to take more of the blame for her “betrayal” of Kong, who becomes less of a threat, and more like a moody boyfriend. Making him more human actually diminishes his stature. Kong the Mighty spends most of Act II moping.
To make Ann’s role bigger, librettist Jack Thorne and songwriter Eddie Perfect had to make the other characters smaller. Filmmaker Carl Denham (Eric William Morris) is now just a creepy con man and ship captain Englehorn has almost nothing to do.
Perfect’s score doesn’t always live up to the grandeur of the central character (who doesn’t sing, thankfully), but he does provide Pitts with several satisfying power ballads, including a wow of an eleven o’clock number, “The Wonder,” delivered as she stands alone at the pinnacle of the Empire State.
King Kong plays at the Broadway Theatre in Manhattan.