Wednesday, November 28, 2018

122 (2018-2019): Review: KING KONG (November 27, 2018)

“The Hairless Ape”

Over the years, a number of Broadway musicals have pushed the boundaries of visual spectacle, sometimes creating iconic images, like the helicopter in Miss Saigon or the chandelier in The Phantom of the Opera. The newest example of what theatrical legerdemain can achieve is King Kong, which comes to New York from London, following versions that evolved with different contributors from a 2013 Australian original. The final creative team of this $35 million epic, with its 36 credited producers, is made up of Jack Thorne, book; Marius de Vries, score; Eddie Perfect, songs; and Drew McOnie, direction. 
Christiani Pitts. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Its contribution to the gallery of iconic effects is a giant ape. Unlike the shows cited above, however, King Kong—inspired by Merian C. Cooper’s classic 1933 movie of that name—lacks a memorable score, dramatic intensity, and grippingly engrossing characters. For a show based on what Wikipedia calls “the greatest horror film of all time,” its fright threshold is not much greater than a kid trick or treating at Halloween.
Christiani Pitts. Photo: Joan Marcus,
There’s no question, however, that King Kong deserves to be seen as a superlative demonstration of the power of lively staging (by director-choreographer Drew McOnie) combined with remarkable lighting (by Peter Mumford), exceptional sets and projections (by Peter England, with video and projection imaging content by Artists in Motion), colorful period costumes (by Roger Kirk), and overwhelming sound (by Peter Hylenski). There's also Kong’s theatre-shaking growl, provided by Jon Hoche. The visual elements are so seamlessly integrated with the physical staging that they often inspire a visceral response. When, for example, the company assembles a ship before your eyes and the vessel then journeys upstage into a roiling sea, you can be excused if your stomach grows queasy.
Christiani Pitts. Photo: Joan Marcus.
And then there’s the chief attraction, that eponymous, hulking, roaring, 2,000-pound, two story-high silverback gorilla, a humongous, partially motorized puppet, designed by Sonny Tilders, with 10 onstage puppeteers (called the King’s Company, they double as part the show’s larger ensemble) manipulating its many cables, with additional operators offstage responsible for other animatronic functions.
Christiani Pitts, Eric William Morris, and company. Photo: Joan Marcus.
For all its creator's brilliant achievements, though, including the many expressive emotions flitting across its face, the ape—whose hairless exterior is more like black leather than fur—never transcends its artificial existence to represent anything approaching a threatening presence. Its clearly visible cables and mechanical accouterments emphasize its make-believe existence, just as do its manipulators, who have been likened, inaccurately, to those in Japan’s bunraku theatre. On the one hand, it’s a technical tour de force; on the other, for this spectator at least, it lacks even the emotionally compelling power of the film’s equally fake, stop-motion gorilla. Now and then, though, it does have truly awesome moments, as when it seems to practically burst out of the proscenium as if about to rush into the audience.
Christiani Pitts, Eric William Morris. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Jack Thorne’s (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) book, set in 1931, alters the plot of the original film (which now seems somewhat childish), focusing on only three principal characters: Ann Darrow (Christiani Pitts, in the role that made Fay Wray famous), a pretty farm girl who arrives in New York hoping to become an actress and the “Queen of New York”; Carl Denham (Eric William Morris, in the Robert Armstrong role), the egotistical, tunnel-vision movie director who casts Ann (and no one else, it seems) in his upcoming project; and, in place of the movie’s romantic hero, Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot, you may recall), Denham’s kindly, middle-aged assistant, Lumpy (Eric Lochtefeld), who befriends Ann.
Christiani Pitts. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Denham’s project requires that they sail on the SS Wanderer to Skull Island, where Ann is captured by the ginormous Kong, who treats her gently, and saves her from a giant serpent (subbing for the movie’s several dinosaurs), played by another puppet. Denham manages to capture Kong and bring him back for live display as the “8th Wonder of the World” at a New York theatre. Circumstances lead to the ape’s breaking his shackles, rampaging through the city, climbing to the top of the Empire State Building (curiously, the show’s most disappointing set) with Ann in his grasp, and fighting off the planes attacking him there (despite Ann’s precarious proximity).
Christiani Pitts. Photo: Joan Marcus.
McOnie’s vigorous staging works hard to capture Depression-era New York, with girders belonging to its rising skyscrapers flying higher as breadlines, heads down, traipse across the stage, or the bustling city’s dwellers move restlessly through its streets in choreographic patterns highlighted by acrobatic dancing, with lots of back-flips. We even get 42nd Street-type Broadway tap-dance routines, in rehearsal and performance. Jungle scenes make use of luminescent vines animated by vine-covered creatures, and strobe lights, haze, and other effects punctuate the action.
Christiani Pitts, Eric William Morris. Photo: Joan Marcus.
But the over-sized scale has necessitated a production in which the overwrought visual and auditory elements demand similarly overstated acting. None of the principals provide any subtlety, which only heightens the general sense of banality pervading the show. Morris’s Denham is too slickly superficial, a one-note egotist. Pitts (who sings the two best numbers, the soothing “The Moon Lullaby” and the power ballad “The Wonder”) does little more than make Ann spunky.  And Lochtefeld’s Lumpy is a stereotype of the gruffly sincere older man.
Christiani Pitts. Photo: Joan Marcus.
King Kong’s innovatively spectacular sights may insure that it stays around long enough to recoup its sizable investment. On balance, though, it would seem that its chief contribution to the history of the Broadway musical will be little more than the memory of an enormous hairless ape.


Broadway Theatre
1681 Broadway, NYC
Open run