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King Kong

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors

King Kong

King Kong. Photo by Joan Marcus

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors

Obviously, Broadway was calling and here comes King Kong to the Broadway Theatre, in all his gargantuan splendor. The gorilla superhero was one of the most famous movie monsters, premiering in a 1933 film, a remake in 1975 and again in 2005.  On the theater stage, while the gorilla himself is fantastic, the musical is hardly razzle-dazzle.

A giant of stagecraft and puppetry, King Kong is  the star in this spectacle, a chest-beating, teeth-baring colossal creature, with an earsplitting roar as he crashes through jungles of Skull Island in the Indian Sea. However, as a largely sung-through musical, King Kong  disappoints with colorless songs and repetitive dashes of hip-hop and athletic jitterbug. Composer Marius de Vries provides atmospheric scoring and Eddie Perfect's lyrics are uninspiring.

For those who never saw the various films, the year is 1931. New York City, like the rest of the world, is suffering in the grip of the Great Depression. Directed and choreographed by Drew McOnie, the play unfolds with a stage filled with bustling, hustling people. McOnie keeps the energy of the city vibrant, zeroing in on one of those busy walkers, a determined new-comer, Ann Darrow, played by Christiani Pitts, coming to make her mark on the Great White Way.

With a book by Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), Ann,  African-American, finds the steps to stardom difficult to climb.  When a scheming filmmaker, Carl Denham (Eric Michael Morris), offers her the chance to join his upcoming expedition to far-off Skull Island to find and capture a huge gorilla and bring him home for live stage shows, with Ann as the star, she agrees.  Although she is an amiable young lady, we come to see she is no pushover.

Reaching Skull Island, they find their gorilla, a 20-foot tall and rather majestic Kong, designed by Sonny Tilder. Ann is impressed by the creature with whom she senses an inner soul and connection. Even when he bellows at her, she returns with a roar of her own, albeit more lightweight. A unique friendship develops between them and Ann realizes they share experiences of victimization. "We’ll never break the lock or ever leave the box the world has put us in,” she sings to Kong.  However, she ultimately decides to go along with Carl's plan to trap and transport Kong . Seeing the ape's distraught eyes, she knows she is selling out and later draws on her own courage to fight back.

The gorilla is extraordinary, 2,400 pounds of puppetry manipulated by Gavin Robins and a troop of 14 handlers, every facial and body movement breathtaking, either when he is swatting away people or as his eyes stare emotionally at Ann. As Kong rushes through the jungle, Peter England's sets and projection visuals, Peter Hylenski's sound design and Peter Mumford's lighting all boost the ape's fearsome presence, even as he looms threateningly over the first rows of the audience. Also gripping are Kong's race to the Empire State Building, Ann clinging to his back, and the pitiable expressiveness when he falls to his death.

Christiani Pitts and Eric Michael Morris are capable, if not memorable in their sketchy roles as plucky Ann and sleazy Carl, both fine singers. Watching the gorilla, however, is the wonder of this show and with the technology, Kong is the only star.

King Kong

The Broadway Theatre
1681 Broadway at 53rd Street, New York
Previews: Oct. 5, 2018. Opening: Nov. 8, 2018. Closing: April 14, 2019
Running Time: Two hours, 15 min. One intermission.
Cast: Christine Pitts, Eric William Morris, Erik Lochtefeld,, Ashley Andrews, Mike Baerga, Rhaamell Burke-Missouri, Chloe Campbell, Leroy Church, Peter Chursin, Jovan Dansberry, Kayla Davion, Rory Donovan, Casey Garvin, Christopher Hampton Grant, Jon Hoche, Gabriel Hyman, Harley Jay, James T. Lane, Marty Lawson, Jonathan Christopher MacMillan, Danny Miller, Britany Marcell Monachino, Jennifer Noble, Kristen Faith Oei, Eliza Ohman, Roberto Olvera, Jaquez Andre Sims, Khadija Tariyan, Jena Van Elslander, Scott Weber, Jacob Williams, Lauren Yalango-Grant, Warren Yang, David Yijae.
Playwright: Jack Thorne
Directed: Drew McOnie

Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors
December 2018

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