20-foot Kong is a rush, but the rest flops
NEW YORK — Stare hard into the gorgeous eyes of that gigantic gorilla, people: They’re like deep emotional pools, transfixing in their moist, needy intensity. If they gave out Tony Awards for the peepers on puppets, King Kong would already be monkeying with his acceptance speech.
Come June, we’d be watching a 20-foot-high, 2,000-pound silverback crying into the camera, thanking RKO Radio Pictures, Ann Darrow and these new twin Broadway amazements of automation and acrylic. “I’m a humbled ape,” he’d be mouthing as the stage gave way under his colossal weight.
Alas, a great popular musical needs more than the big daddy of all puppets to deliver a hit show that pounds the heart and licks the bananas of the mind. And the best way to sum up everything wrong with “King Kong,” which opened Thursday night at the Broadway Theatre with a thud surely audible in Staten Island, would be that the show created a star worthy of the biggest marquee in Midtown, but not credible or complex characters with whom the titular dude can meaningfully interact, once he is winched down from the heavens.
King Kong doesn’t sing, — although his roar is a live and ear-piercing effect — which is just as well, given a score from Marius de Vries that confuses what you need for background music in an action movie with a musical suite for Broadway, where ditties actually matter in form, substance and emotional key. The show has a “score” by de Vries and then “songs” by Eddie Perfect, when it needed, of course, a musical underpinning as cohesive as it was exciting. It didn’t get one.
The key to this long-ingestation musical — like all musicals, even the ones costing $30 million — lay in the potential connections and relationships. And, frankly, when you’re doing “King Kong,” for goodness sake, a better sense of humor would not have gone amiss in director Drew McOnie’s production. It’s strange to find that missing in a show from Australia.
But before we lament the lack of all that, fairness requires giving it up for the puppet, an animated beast designed by Sonny Tilders so spectacularly splendorous as to make Julie Taymor’s artier creations look like measly marionettes. Even if, like me, you served your family time at Global Creatures’ earlier “Walking With Dinosaurs” arena extravaganzas, where animatronic seemed to munch on awestruck 4-year-olds in the front rows, King Kong is still a whole new level of achievement. He’s controlled by joystick and computers, but also hand-manipulated by 10 onstage puppeteers, all scurrying around under his body and shifting his limbs. They are what convey his palpably rich heart. You can tell they love him. And that he loves them right back.
And if you don’t get a rush from watching King Kong running through the digital streets of retro Manhattan and then ascending the Empire State Building, carrying Christiani Pitts’ Ann Darrow in his paws, then you have neither a pulse nor the right to be hanging out in New York City. Those sequences are fantastic; they’re just not even close to enough.
Jack Thorne’s book has the tricky task of combining the original story from the 1933 movie — all about a maverick movie director named Carl Denham (Eric William Morris) who finds King Kong on an expedition to Skull Island, only to decide that there is cash to be made from bringing the captured beast back with him to Manhattan.
Part sentimental, part exploitative, that film made famous use of the ingenue Fay Wray as a categorykilling damsel in distress, three words that just don’t fly today. Thus Thorne (who also wrote the far superior “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”) has switched out Wray’s screams of fear for a proto-feminist roar and brought internal conflict into the heroine — she’s a hungry Peggy Sawyer type arriving on 42nd Street to make her fortune, only to spend the show worrying that she selfishly is selling out her ape pal for her own career. And Ann gets a sympathetic friend on Denham’s team, a fellow named Lumpy (Erik Lochtefeld), even as she is eyed with suspicion by Capt. Englehorn (Rory Donovan) and the crew hired for the voyage to Skull Island.
All of those ideas could have worked — Ann Darrow as Gotham City’s Jane Goodall — if there was better character development and if you actually believed the relationship between Ann and King Kong. But while he does his best to give it up, she’s emotionally unavailable and preoccupied with the show’s frenetic choreography, also by McOnie, who needed to spend less time on racing narrative movement and more on human intimacy. Even as simple as it is, the story races along at such a pace that it feels like it always is running away from what matters most in a musical. Given all that was built here, we could have come to know the star so much better, and all kinds of opportunities are missed for tender moments.
This is a show riven by choices without followthrough: Even the eventual demise of King Kong — assaulted with weapons on the top of the Empire State — doesn’t land with veracity. All of these puppeteers bust a collective gut making us believe in the reality of him, only for the designer, Peter England, to fill the theater with ridiculous lasers, as if this were a video game with no rules.
What a waste. If only all of “King Kong” had better believed in the truth of its own throbbing, pulsing, thoroughly fabulous puppet.
Christiani Pitts is Ann Darrow, while puppeteers operate the 2,000-pound Kong in “King Kong” on Broadway.