King Kong is an odd beast – and no, I don’t mean the ape himself. The musical conceived by Australian producer Global Creatures adapts the classic 1933 film and retains much of the latter’s strange disjointedness. On the one hand, there is the pure spectacle of over-the-top special effects that are begging to be improved upon even as they represent the peak of contemporary technical possibilities. On the other, there is the sentimental, semi-metaphorical strand in an otherwise B-grade adventure narrative that has given the movie its curious staying power and invites audiences to consider the soul of a so-called monster.
King Kong the musical, like the film before it, has its genesis in visual effects and struggles to escape this. Australian puppet designer Sonny Tilders’ vision was to take puppetry “beyond spectacle to story and narrative.” Yet even this desire reveals the fact that the large-scale puppetry in which he specializes is generally motivated by such spectacle. The massive puppet itself rather pleasingly combines the old-tech of marionette and Bunraku-style puppetry with the new-tech of animatronics and projections by Peter England.
The audience around me whooped with delight as pulleys and the athletic, skillfully choreographed “King’s Company” of puppeteers brought Kong into a run, Ann Darrow (Christiani Pitts) seemingly clutched in his hand, while the sophisticated projection—at times hyperealistic, at others fantastical—created the illusion of great speed. Peter Mumford’s atmospheric lighting design contributes to the overall effect.
The skill and artistry on display is undeniable. I cannot help, however, but be left somewhat cold by what is, ultimately, unadulterated display; or—even worse—reduced to laughter at the sheer silliness of it all. The primacy given to spectacular effects prompts me to look for flaws. It begs the question of why theatre-makers should attempt to recreate the special effects that film can achieve so much better. I miss the quiet concentration of focus achieved by the best small-scale puppetry that heightens the tiniest expressive movement, magically humanizing the puppet, and allowing the mechanics of it all to fade away.
King Kong is not entirely without these moments. Certain scenes attempt to achieve empathy for the massive puppet so that the underlying tragedy of the narrative will ring true. But then, all the loud sounds, flashing lights, and massive scale of everything else seems a jarring intrusion into what could be real story. This is not the fault of this particular production per se, but the basic dramaturgical problem of the King Kong concept—it either satisfies the urge for terror and large-scale wonder, or the yearning for sentiment and deeper significance, but it fails to do both at the same time.
Jack Thorne’s book trims the original plot, wisely cutting the stereotyped “natives” of Skull Island and reducing Kong’s battles with the island’s other monsters to one fight between him and a giant serpent, in which he saves Ann’s life (Freud, eat your heart out). The most significant change, however, is to the lead (human) characters. It leans into the exploitative arrogance of Carl Denham (Eric William Morris), transforms the down on her luck actress Ann Darrow (Pitts) from damsel in distress to a more gutsy heroine and eliminates the love story all together. Len, aka “Lumpy” (Erik Lochtefeld) lends some heart as Denham’s lacky to whom Ann shows sympathy and respect. Obviously a narrative device to demonstrate Ann’s ability to see past appearances to a depth of soul, the friendship between them does provide some attempt to reach beyond the confined triad of Kong, Carl, and Ann.
The musical embraces the inevitable metatheatricality of the classic film’s scenes of Kong on display in New York through Carl’s exhibition of Kong staged here as a kitschy musical. Although yes, Carl’s threats to Ann that he could ruin her career do ring certain bells, the production thankfully does not push too hard for relevance, which in this production would be nothing more than political pretension. The audience may draw their own conclusions about King Kong’s basic metaphor in 2018.
The characters remain fairly stereotypical sketches, but the actors do well at fleshing them out. Morris plays Carl as the kind of charismatic person who offsets his selfishness with enough charm to successfully manipulate those around him. Lochtefeld is likewise pretty spot on as sweet, sad Len. In this Broadway rendition of King Kong, however, it is Ann who must carry the show and Pitts does so with refreshing energy and oomph. The somewhat revisionist take on the heroine could easily fall into lip service with a few superficially feminist comments here and there, and some evidence of fight. Pitts, however, works to forego existing models of the Broadway heroine as much as possible, grounding her performance in satisfyingly unmannered, warm-hearted comedy, while also tapping into the sentimental core of her relationship with Kong.
The three leads are all actors more than singers, but this is a dancer’s musical anyway. In addition to the impeccable choreography of the puppeteers, director Drew McOnie’s pure dance choreography performed by the excellent ensemble is a strength. McOnie combines Golden-Age show moves, with touches of ballet, and a distinct modern dance sensibility into interesting numbers that deliver as much atmospheric intensity as the special effects and (overly amplified) Hollywood-esque backing score by Marius de Vries. At times, indeed, the combined effect is a little overwrought.
The individual songs by de Vries and Eddie Perfect offer some potential for longer life: “Queen of New York,” “Building the Boat” and “Pressure Up” are dramatic, with a touch of the hummability that signals a show tune’s staying power. Others don’t quite find a hook and there were one or two derivative numbers (there’s a clear touch of Alanis Morrisette in “The Wonder”). I suspect the music and lyrics may be better than this, but a heavy hand on the microphone amplification muddied the songs; too many lyrics lost in irritating reverberation and a tinny quality that did no justice to the singers’ voices.
The production is often entertaining in a bizarre, messy, and excessive way, but never quite satisfying as a whole. It does not manage to transcend the basic incompatibility at its core. Catharsis is famously achieved through the purging of fear and pity. In King Kong, however, these two emotions operate in separate spheres. The musical cannot reconcile the desire to have its audience scream, with the desire to have them care. It is either beating chest or sad eyes, but never both.