Friday, November 23, 2018

Review of "King Kong"

There are three questions people have asked me about the new Broadway musical, King Kong:

1.    Is Kong the 8th Wonder of the World?
2.    Is the musical good theater?
3.    Is the show worth seeing?

Answer #1 – The 20-foot puppet and animatronic marvel is spectacular.  The producers of the show, Global Creatures, are behind the impressive arena extravaganzas Walking with Dinosaurs so their knowledge and expertise in crafting larger than life beasts is striking.  King Kong does not disappoint.  It’s muscled bulk, massive dimensions, unlikely agility, and animatronic facial features are a sight to behold.  His reactions and the range of emotions are uncanny.

Answer #2 – As theater, King Kong is unexceptional.  There is a lot of razzle dazzle and very thrilling effects, most notably in the projections and sound, lighting and scenic designs.  But unless the simian star is onstage, the show drags, the choreography baffles and the score is inconsequential.

Answer #3 – While on Skull Island the movie producer Carl Denham realizes audiences will pay big bucks to see Kong in captivity.  Is art reflecting reality here?  As I’ve stated, as a work of musical theater King Kong is undistinguished.  However, unless the producers figure out a way to tour the show, audiences will never experience the amazing magnitude and astounding wizardry of such a creation without seeing the Broadway production.  For that reason alone, the musical is worth the money.

The stage production closely follows the plot of the iconic movie with the destitute actress Ann Darrow being discovered by Carl Denham in a two-bit New York City diner and then whisked off to the mysterious Skull Island aboard a chartered freighter. There, while filming a jungle-themed movie the awe-inspiring ape appears, grabs the unsuspecting heroine, and disappears into the wild.  A rescue ensues, Kong is subdued, brought back to NYC, and just before he is put on display at a theater-near-you, breaks free.  He ravages the city, retakes Ann Darrow, climbs the Empire State Building and, well, you know the rest.

As a musical, King Kong struggles.  Certain elements of the production work but, overall, it is disappointing.  The show would have been much more successful as a straight play with symphonic accompaniment to ratchet up the suspense and emotion of the work.

The book by Jack Thorne, who won the Tony Award last year for writing Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, is matter-of-fact.  It focuses on the rapport of the Ann Darrow character with Kong as well as her relationship with Carl Denham.  The story is streamlined.  Ms. Darrow’s movie love interest – Jack Driscoll – has been excised as have the island natives.  Thorne has also reimagined Ms. Darrow as an independent, feisty survivor that is more than capable of taking care of herself.  The playwright has also made sure to keep in the notable scenes from the film, including Kong and the heroine atop Skull mountain and the Empire State Building.

The score by Marius de Vries is noteworthy only because of how unremarkable the songs are.  They help with exposition and teasing out Ann Darrow’s feelings and sentiments towards Kong, but convey little else.

The King Kong crafted for the musical is breathtaking.  Audiences will be astonished by the creature towering over them.  There are ten stage hands, clad in black hoodies, that maneuver and manipulate Kong.  Noticeable at first, very quickly they blend into the background and, eventually, become hardly noticeable.  They are augmented by three staff in a booth that control Kong’s animatronics and provide his magnificent roars.

The human cast is pleasing, but only Christiani Pitts as Ann Darrow shows any depth to their role.  She demonstrates self-reliance and a spirited persona that adds a spark to the production.  Eric William Morris’ Carl Denham explodes with exuberance and hucksterism, which belies a calculating and contemptible manner.  Erik Lochtefeld’s Lumpy, an invented character for the musical serves, somewhat, as the moral compass for the showman.  Appearing intermittently, his fatigued, world-weary character provides sage and fatherly advice.

The real stars of the musical are the creative crew that have dreamed up and put on stage other-worldly and captivating effects.  A standing ovation for Sonny Tilders for designing Kong, truly a remarkable feat.  Kudos to Peter England for the stunning scenic and projection designs, Peter Mumford (lighting), and Peter Hylenski (sound).  Their dazzling artistry simulates movement of the beast and produces visual trickery that enthralls and bedazzles including a rocky sea voyage and a hightail charge through the jungle.

Director/Choreographer Drew McOnie is at his best when blending the action sequences and projections.  He handles the more intimate scenes between the ape and Ms. Darrow with coolness and aplomb.  It is a very busy stage, populated by a large cast consisting, primarily, of ensemble members.  Sometimes it seems it is a challenge to keep them all occupied.  His choreography is at times puzzling and more distracts than adds to the production.

King Kong, a colossal and imposing presence at the Broadway Theatre.

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