20-foot Kong is a rush, but the rest flops

The Capital - - HOMES - By Chris Jones T. rexes “King Kong” plays at the Broad­way The­atre, 1681 Broad­way; 212-239-6200 or KingKongBroad­way.com Chris Jones is a Tri­bune critic. cjones5@chicagotri­bune.com

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.

JOAN MAR­CUS PHOTO

Chris­tiani Pitts is Ann Dar­row, while pup­peteers op­er­ate the 2,000-pound Kong in “King Kong” on Broad­way.

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