New York City Theater
Trigger Warning: An interspecies romance is at the center of the new musical spectacle, “King Kong.” The title character (brilliantly designed by Sonny Tilders) is a 20-foot, 2,000 pound black gorilla puppet who roars loudly, moves threateningly, beats his chest with enough force to cause injury and falls in love with a feisty, empathetic white woman. And she with him. Kids will be enchanted; adults will appreciate the technology.
The evening begins with construction workers riding steel girders. Is a skyscraper being built in the middle of the Great Depression? (The time is 1931). Is it the Empire State Building, the landmark that figures so prominently in the story? After all, it went up around the same time that the show takes place. (The original “King Kong” film was released in 1933.)
Is this a clash between nature and industrialization? Is it, as many have pointed out, an allegory for slavery: the black figure brought to America in chains to become a slave? Or, perhaps, it’s a plea for the salvation of endangered animals? Or, a variation on the classic “Beauty and the Beast” love story (without the happy ending)? Or all of the above?
Whatever. The result is a bungled musical with great technical aspects. You can’t even emerge whistling the score since Eddie Perfect’s songs are pedestrian and you can hardly sing Marius de Vries’ soaring, melodramatic orchestral underscoring.
When the ape finally appears, he’s quite a sight. Handled by a group of sturdy roustabouts, the animatronic figure is certainly impressive. Stalking the stage, advancing on the audience, he is both menacing and cuddly. His facial expressions range from fierce to tender and the eyes, especially, are filled with emotion whether he’s unmercifully chained or sweetly tamed by the mutual love between him and Ann Darrow (an excellent Christiani Pitts as a conscientious feminist).
Ann, having arrived in New York with acting aspirations, is exploited by low-rent film director Cal Denham (a middling Eric William Morris) and loved by his slow-witted assistant, Lumpy (a touching Erik Lochtefeld). King Kong, captured on an excursion to the deserted Skull Island, becomes a main New York attraction in a tacky vaudeville show, scaring everyone from chorus girls to attendees.
Everyone, that, is, except Ann whose relationship with the gorilla is more humane than those of his profiteers. “What have we done?” she asks, to which Denham facetiously replies, “We just changed the world.” (He doesn’t mean for the better.)
For all its pointless, acrobatic dancing, its lack of humor and its paucity of suspense, the evening transcends all that in its technical achievements.
Credit Peter England’s pulsating scenic and projection designs, Peter Mumford’s lighting, Peter Hylenski’s sound, Roger Kirk’s costumes and Gavin Robins’ aerial movement direction.
Director Drew McOnie quickens the pace and knows where the excitement is, although his choreography is repetitive and meaningless. Jack Thorne, who wrote the book, had better luck cohering “Harry Potter.” Here, one line goes, “When you feel wonder, it can change you forever.” The wonder of this “King Kong” is why it doesn’t delve further into the rich material at its fingertips.
--David A. Rosenberg
Nov. 22, 2018