He can’t sing a note. They definitely don’t make tap shoes in his size. And, aside from some extremely expressive growls and roars, he doesn’t exactly sizzle at delivering dialogue.
And yet the title character in the musical version of “King Kong” is, without question, the dazzling star of the show. He alone carries the weight of this lavish production (capitalized at up to $36.5 million) on his broad, hirsute back.
Unfortunately, it’s not a very heavy burden. In fact, remove the big, strangely beautiful beast from the show, and the musical would collapse from its own weightlessness. The human characters — and they are so few they could handily fit in the big gorilla’s paw — would be swallowed up by the (admittedly spectacular) scenery.
Described as being based on the 1932 novel (who knew there was one?), the musical’s rudimentary big-gorilla-meets-girl story will be familiar to anyone who has seen the classic 1933 movie, or for that matter one of its non-classic remakes. (The 1976 version almost killed Jessica Lange’s career before it got started.)
Onstage, the storyline seems even flimsier. Christiani Pitts plays Ann Darrow, an aspiring ingénue from small-town America who dreams of making it to the big time in New York. (Are your eyes glazing already? Sorry.) The opening scenes of the show depict the plucky Ann’s unhappy struggles — including a bit of a #MeToo moment that occasions her introduction to the ambitious movie director Carl Denham (Eric William Morris), who admires her brassiness and immediately offers her a role in the movie that he thinks will make both their careers.
The only problem: It’s filming on location on a remote island. These early scenes, including the long voyage out to Skull Island, inevitably feel like not very tasty amuse-bouches before we get to the main course. The songs in these passages — the score is by Marius de Vries (a music producer best known for working on, although not composing the songs for, “La La Land”) and Eddie Perfect (an Australian songwriter who also scores the upcoming “Beetlejuice”) — mostly feel like aural wallpaper: serviceable but not exactly inspired. Overall, the score ranges broadly if never very distinctively across a wide range of genres, from moody ballads to period pastiche, and even a taste of R&B.
Speaking of wallpaper, however, one of the show’s highlights — really, the only one other than the titular creature — is the work of set and projections designer Peter England. These include smoky, chiaroscuro-filled vistas of New York City and, when the film crew heads to the island, sweepingly beautiful seascapes projected onto a cyclorama that fills the back half of the stage. I’ve experienced many sensations at the theater, but seasickness was never one of them; yet such is the vividness of England’s rendering of the boat heaving as it cleaves the surging waves that I got a little woozy.
But it’s only when King Kong makes his entrance, looming mysteriously from the darkness, at first visible only as a set of dark eyes and giant, gnashing teeth, that “King Kong” inspires anything other than mild tedium. The big galoot is truly a stage marvel unlike any I’ve ever seen before. Its designer, Sonny Tilders, has created a megapuppet that makes the marvels of “The Lion King” look like bits of origami. Looming at a mighty 20 feet, reportedly weighing a full ton, and manipulated by both black-clad puppeteers onstage and technicians backstage, Kong is nevertheless surprisingly light on his feet, as we see when he charges from the darkness to snatch Ann and spirit her away to his mountain aerie.
What’s more, thanks to the delicacy of Tilders’ design and the work of Jon Hoche, who provides Kong’s voice live from backstage, he is not just a hulking piece of mobile scenery but an emotionally vivid and even nuanced presence. Yes, he rages mightily and loudly, but he also expresses grunting tenderness, curiosity at his new companion, and an authentic pathos when he is brought in captivity back to New York. His dark liquid eyes, by who knows what magic, seems to be filmed over with inexpressible sorrow.
But when this formidable fellow is not center stage, the musical falls back into formulaic mode. Too much of the second act is consumed by clichéd let’s-put-on-a-show business, as Carl decides his prized beast will wow the crowds live rather than on film. Throughout the show, the Kong-free scenes feel like mere filler. Jack Thorne, who worked such magic on “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” seems to have broken his wand when grabbing for his paycheck in writing the book, failing to bring any notable dimensions to the interactions among the human characters.
True, much effort has been expended to focus our attention on Ann’s emotional journey, from innocent ingénue to scared but sassy captive to sympathetic tamer of her peculiar admirer. And Pitts, who does the lion’s share of the singing, acquits herself admirably on all fronts. The ballads in which she expresses her growing wonder at and mysterious sympathy for Kong are more alluring than the rest of the score, despite eyeroll-inducing lyrics like: “There’s a beauty in you/We saw a monster/When we couldn’t see the truth.” Pitts puts them across with her strong, rangy voice — to the point that I began to fear for her vocal cords, since the orchestrations can be thunderously loud.
But Morris’s slick, crass Carl is strictly a stock character, despite a perfunctory moment of compunction toward the end, and there’s little Morris can do to remedy the problem. Perhaps recognizing the emotional vacuity at the heart of the Ann-Carl relationship, Thorne does provide a little side dish of humanity in the form of a diffident fellow nicknamed Lumpy, Carl’s aide-de-camp, who encourages Ann to rethink her blind ambition, and who is played with an effective hangdog grace by Erik Lochtefeld.
The stolid direction of Drew McOnie doesn’t help matters, and his choreography – featuring whirling hordes of New Yorkers leaping skyward, and sailors improbably romping their way to that remote island – feels like a frenetic attempt to inject some energy into the listless Kong-free passages. (What’s more, the choreography feels so derivative of the innovative work of Steven Hoggett — of “Harry Potter,” “Once” and “American Idiot,” among others — that he should by all rights get a cut of the profits.)
In the end, “King Kong” delivers what it is expected to and what it must: spectacle, which has, after all, been a staple allure of Broadway since the days of Florenz Ziegfeld and beyond. That it has no other distinction as a musical may be immaterial, although it will take a lot of spectacle-lovers to earn back that near-record price tag.
Still, it’s a pity that the big, lovable beast at the musical’s center didn’t get a better vehicle to make his Broadway debut. Then again, nor do a lot of human actors. And that’s showbiz, Kong. But you might want to look for a new agent.
“King Kong” opened on Nov. 8, 2018 at the Broadway Theatre.
Creative: Written by Jack Thorne; Score Composed and Produced by Marius de Vries; Songs by Eddie Perfect; Directed by Drew McOnie; Choreographed by Drew McOnie; Scenic Design by Peter England; Costume Design by Roger Kirk; Lighting Design by Peter Mumford; Sound Design by Peter Hylenski; Hair Design by Tom Watson; Projection Design by Peter England; Creature Design by Sonny Tilders.
Producers: Carmen Pavlovic, Roy Furman, Gerry Ryan, Len Blavatnik, Edward Walson, Ben Lowy, Bob Boyett, Peter Ivany, Harmonia Holdings, Peter May, Liebowitz/Grossman/Shields Productions, Lynne & Marvin Garelick, The Shubert Organization, The Nederlander Organization, Jujamcyn Theaters, Audrey Wilf, Sandy Robertson, Jennifer Fischer, Fantaci/Carusi/Lachowicz, Robert Appel, The John Gore Organization, 42nd.club, Independent Presenters Network and Global Creatures.
Cast: Eric William Morris, Christiani Pitts, Erik Lochtefeld, Mike Baerga, Rhaamell Burke-Missouri, Chloë Campbell, Leroy Church, Peter Chursin, Jovan Dansberry, Kayla Davion, Rory Donovan, Casey Garvin, Jon Hoche, Gabriel Hyman, Harley Jay, James T. Lane, Marty Lawson, Danny Miller, Brittany Marcell Monachino, Jennifer Noble, Eliza Ohman, Roberto Olvera, Jaquez André Sims, Khadija Tariyan, Jacob Williams, Lauren Yalango-Grant, David Yijae.