Some critics has been harsh on the new Broadway show King Kong, saying it’s all about animatronics - the use of cable pulled devices or motors to animate an inanimate object - in this case, to bring the 20-foot tall 2,000-pound marionette to life. In fact, Kong requires 14 performers and 16 microprocessors to operate. But while central to the story and, of course, the reason for the show, that’s not what blew me away about this production. There is a non-stop sense of motion and excitement even before Kong is seen. I don’t think I looked away from the stage for the entire first act.
Any star performance needs a good supporting cast. And Kong has two strong ones: the leading lady Christiani Pitts, and the scenic and projection designer Peter English. Pitts as Ann Darrow, the wannabe Broadway stage actress and who becomes Kong’s heartthrob, lights up the stage from the moment she appears. With only one Broadway show to her credit (The Bronx Tale), this relative newcomer sings, dances, climbs and acts - and does it all well. On stage for most of the show, she maintains an intensity and spark throughout, and in the closing numbers lets loose with a vocal range you didn’t expect. No wonder Kong fell for her.
The other support system – like Atlas holding the globe – are the magnificent and moving projections from scenic designer Peter English. When projections were first used in live theatre, many people saw them as a substitute for physical scenery. But this technology has matured much as digital photography supplanted paper prints. It was like I was watching a 3D movie as the bow of the ship rose from the stage bounding over cresting waves on the way to Skull Island (Kong’s habitat). The recent production of An American in Paris also used projections majestically, but this is a quantum leap forward.
For those unfamiliar with the story, in this current version, a young actress down on her luck meets a maverick filmmaker, Carl Denham (Eric William Morris), who convinces her to join a voyage from 1930s New York to an uncharted island to make a film against the background of one of the wonders of the world. The actress and Kong get along (she shows little fear) but despite reservations, Ann allows the film team to change course, capture Kong, and bring him back to New York to display in a carnival show. Kong, in captivity, doesn’t fare well, and Ann convinces him to break loose. All this leads to a very sad ending, of course.
Now folks, I’m a long-time fan of traditional Broadway musicals. This King Kong is a book musical, with dancing, a full score (more on that later), and wonderful period costumes. The book (story of the show) is by Jack Thorne whose credits include the current Broadway play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. The level of craft everywhere is very high. The $35 million production budget is evident. So where does the production go wrong? The music is merely supportive - more of an underscore with a few breakout songs as we would find in a Disney movie. One in particular, “Queen of New York,” plays a feminist note with lines like “at least I’m not some man’s property.” The dancing is often frenetic featuring acrobatics rather than the traditional Broadway jazz style.
But you don’t come for the dancing, you come for excitement and this King Kong has it galore. Be mindful that sensitive youngsters and children under 13 may find the demise of the lifelike Kong overwhelming, especially the final scenes when Kong is shot down atop the Empire State Building. That said the story has been around for almost a century. I think this King Kong will have a long run as well.
George A. Wachtel is president of Audience Research & Analysis, a New York City-based market research firm specializing in arts and entertainment.
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