Broadway Goes Ape For King Kong

Remake of Classic 1933 Rumble in the Jungle

By: - Nov 08, 2018

Ape on a rampage,

King Kong
Book by Jack Thorne
Music and lyrics by Marius de Vries and Eddie Perfect
Directed and choreography by Drew McOnie
Scenic and projection design, Peter England; Creative designer, Sonny Tilders; Costumes, Roger Kirk; Lighting, Peter Mumford; Sound, Peter Hylenski.
Cast: Christiani Pitts (Ann Darrow), Eric William Morris (Carl Denham), Eric Lochtefeld (Lumpy), John Hoche (voice of Kong).
Broadway Theatre
1681 Broadway

While retaining essential elements what’s most notable about this lavish Broadway production of the iconic King Kong is the extent to which it differs from the classic 1933 film.

The famous blood curdling scream of Fay Wray made her a household name in the pantheon of Depression era Hollywood starlets. It resonated with received notions of fear and vulnerability. That primes the pump for a dramatic rescue by virile males whose testosterone levels match those of the giant ape.

That was then. Given that the time frame and locale remain New York and Skull Island in the 1930s, Christiani Pitts as Ann Darrow, is portrayed as a thoroughly modern Millie. In this fast forwarded remake the creators are intent on distancing from aspects of sexism and racism that pervade the vintage film.

It has been reported that this production weighed in at $35 millon. That puts it at the high end of current musicals that average $20 million. The biggest and most lavish musicals are most challenging to break down and tour. Once King Kong recovers its front money in a couple of years it is likely to hit the road. Speaking to an assembly of critics the creators spoke of building several Kongs in their Australian studio.

Their Ann Darrow is reframed as a proto Me Too feminist. When the villainous film director and entrepreneur Carl Denham (Eric William Morris) instructs her to scream baby scream, she balks. Morris is suitably smarmy as a greedy huckster and maven of pulp fiction.

As an ingénue from the heartland, with a career on the line for fame and fortune,  she belts a protest song “Scream for the Money.” This 21st century heroine is riddled with guilt for her role in the capture and exploitation of Kong.  Pitts doth protest too much in an under whelming performance. She does, however. deserve a medal of honor for bravery in riding the rampaging great ape and scaling dizzy heights. There is genuinely impressive risk taking in that aspect of her performance.

Much is made of her bonding with Kong and their poignant exchanges. For the most part, however, Pitts lack convition. For a high flying extravaganza, and potentially blockbuster Broadway musical, the actress low balls an otherwise sensational production.

The exposition of the first act is numbingly pedestrian. It conveys the shop worn tale of a pretty girl, literally suitcase in hand, arriving in the Apple with stardust ambition and champagne dreams. There are generic song and dance routines as gradually she becomes ensnared in schemes of documentary filmmaker Denham setting sail for Skull Island.

Writer Jack Thorne has scrapped Jack her love interest. The cut is intended to maximize fear and trepidation but ultimately empathy for Kong. One may read in post modern notions of feminism and social justice. More than just a scream queen this leading lady is invested with a moral compass. Her struggle to find true north, however, threatens to leave the production lost in the jungle.  

Through her Judas kiss the simian is anesthetized then bound and captured. Languishing chained in a basement cell, through brilliant technology, Kong responds with compelling ennui to her stilted attempts at compassion and reconcilliation. The "acting" of the enormous puppet is a wonder to behold.

Another scalpel decision by Thorne is to have the island uninhabited. With hindsight the 1933 depiction of the islanders was vividly racist. Taking the aboriginals out of the mix, however, deflates the exoticism and adventure of colonialist invasion, greed and exploitation.

What was until then a snore and a bore ratchets up at warp speed as we first hear the earth shattering sound of the approaching Kong. There is an adrenalin rush and roar from the audience when the 20ft and 2000 pound beast emerges from the jungle.

There is an ersatz mutiny until Captain Engelhorn (Rory Donovan) is brought on board with a scheme to capture and exploit the great ape.

From  the arrival of Kong the production is energized with tsunami intensity. There is little doubt that Kong is the star and salvation of the show. In living theatre there has never been anything that tops Kong. It’s the thrill of a lifetime.

At least for now King Kong is the greatest show on earth.

It is curious, however, that for all of its compelling realism this Kong lacks balls. How odd for his creators to neuter their creature. Consider, for example, Michelangelo’s monumental David without his penis. There is also a backstory question of how Kong came to be the only great ape on an uninhabited island? Was he immaculately conceived? There appear to be no parents or a Mrs. Kong. Alone of the island we wonder how he gets his rocks off on Saturday night.

Given that Kong is a lonely bachelor it is little wonder that he is intrigued by Ann.

With the arrival of the great ape on stage production values are totally awesome. It takes a crew of ten ninja attired athletes and five techies to manipulate the puppet. The technology is so sublime that it conveys an unlimited range of anthropomorphic emotions from bestial rage to tender, smitten interaction with Ann. During its confinement and capture Kong conveys depression and despair. Emotional interactions evoked by director Drew McOnie, through technical developments of Peter England, are completely amazing.

In addition to the masterful creation of a magnificent and fluid great ape there are superb video projections, sound and lighting design. As the escaped ape races through Manhattan, and scales the Empire State Building, the illusions are palpable and credible.

The demise of Kong, attacked by a flotilla of biplanes and machine guns, has been spectacularly conveyed in a thoroughly contemporary conceptual manner.

The presence of Kong ratchets a humdrum musical to the stratosphere. It equates to one of the most thrilling evenings on Broadway in a very long time. Unquestionably, Kong is the odds on favorite for a best actor Tony award. It's likely there will be winners for all of the technical aspects of this boffo production.  

Significantly, there was polite applause during curtain calls. Then the ape uttered a final roar. It was matched by an outburst and standing ovation from the audience.

Kong is the new King of Broadway.