Following in the footsteps of Spider-Man (all things considered, the better musical), King Kong galumphs in on expectations of a single gimmick. It’s more than likely everyone in our audience, except perhaps a couple of busloads of middle school kids, is familiar with one or both films. (Most undoubtedly bought tickets prior to The New York Times evisceration and/or are here to see the puppet.) This sets up anticipation of certain moments which are hit or literally missed, as in curiously absent.
The meet-cute in a coffee shop of starving wannabe actress Ann Darrow (Christiani Pitts) and ambitious director Carl Denham (Eric William Morris) is a utilitarian update. Having her appear on deck in full evening regalia, on the other hand, is laughable. Every prior iteration had the sense to give the only woman onboard practical attire.
Instead of being tied to a sacrificial alter, Darrow grabs onto vines which magically lift her up for a photo op – at which point Kong appears teeth first like the Cheshire Cat. Peter Mumford’s Lighting Design is predominantly effective, but constant use of lasers signifying – gods know what – makes half the production look like Star Wars. Only when these represent an assault of weapons do they make sense.
Foreground: Christinai Pitts and Eric William Morris
When Kong should emerge from the jungle, he drops from above. (Logistics must be hell.) The fight with an enormous serpent (who, except for its face, looks like a stuffed toy) is ludicrous, showing the characters’ physical limitations rather than creators’ accomplishments. (Did Sonny Tilders, who designed impressive Kong, also come up with the reptile?) Back in New York City, Denham hawks his outsized attraction standing on a crate at the docks which diminishes an implied blitz of publicity.
What should be a garishly decorated theater interior is underwhelming, as are costumes and props for the public presentation of Kong. Otherwise, Costume Designer Roger Kirk does a good job dressing the company.
Sound Design by Peter Hylenski manifests wonderful creature articulation (by Jon Hoche), but an ostensibly hysterical crowd barely registers. At Ann’s encouragement, Kong breaks his chains and tears out of the theater. The ingénue easily finds her hairy friend, despite panic in the streets and, again, apologizes to the beast. Regrets and society’s culpability are a running theme.
Kong elicits applause for sheer scale, beast-like movement, and empathetic expression. Pretty much everything else is filler.
Marius De Vries’ music and Eddie Prefect’s lyrics are, at best, pedestrian. Direction by Drew McOnie is barely rote. His over-employed, athletic choreography has little to do with any theatrical movement. (Dancers themselves are good.) Christiani Pitts (Ann) would not for a moment be believable even at a suburban dinner theater.
Eric William Morris (Denham) and Erik Lochtefeld (his right hand man, Lumpy) do the best they can with poor material. Casey Garven has a splendid turn as Fake Carl in the movie within the show. That the dreadful book is written by Jack Thorne, who’s done a fine job with Harry Potter and The Cursed Child, is extremely surprising.
Christiani Pitts and King Kong
Let us now praise what we can. Scenic and Projection Designer Peter England, in collaboration with Video and Projection Imaging Content by Artists in Motion, creates marvelous, cinematic visuals of 1930s New York, sea, sky, and Skull Island often as seen from the in-motion, ape’s eye view.
Dock scenes utilize platforms and girders to great effect. When the crew first descends into jungle, they’re effectively tracked by natives camouflaged as foliage. Turning the stage floor into a ship’s deck is cleverly handled as is Kong’s ascent of the Empire State Building. Then, of course, there’s Kong.
If you’re a puppeteer, by all means go.
Opening Photo: Joan Marcus: Christiani Pitts and King Kong
Photos by Matthew Murphy
Written by Jack Thorne
Score Composed and Produced by Marius De Vries
Songs by Eddie Prefect
Directed and Choreographed by Drew McOnie