KING KONG: ALIVE ON BROADWAY

Book by Jack Thorne
Music and Lyrics by Eddie Perfect
Directed & choreographed by Drew McOnie

The temptation to reinvent the quintessential creature feature, billed in its day as “The Most Awesome Thriller of All Time” is understandable. After all, the original King Kong defined movie magic and captivated audiences with its groundbreaking special effects and a story that mashed up mythic allegory and crude Darwinism with emblems of modernity like the Empire State Building. But the world has turned a few times since Kong was billed as its eighth wonder, and any contemporary author attempting to reboot the classic story is faced with two daunting challenges. Firstly, how in the hell do you keep the plot of the original while making it acceptable to today’s sensibilities? Even by 1933 standards, Kong’s gender politics are old-school. Many pre-Code Hollywood films featured street-smart, independent female protagonists,whereas Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) does little but writhe fetchingly as the ape, a raging male libido incarnate, sniffs, ogles, fondles and abducts her: no courtship or consent required. And then there’s the problem of Skull Island’s natives,those drum-pounding, spear-brandishing savages who are so impressed with Ann’s blonde locks and milky skin that they kidnap the “golden woman”and serve her up as an antipasto to appeasement their simian god. Clearly, none of this would fly today, but once you jettison the story’s racism, sexism and imperialism, is it still King Kong? Secondly, in a time when IMAX 3D movies are playing at the mall and hyper-real graphics are available on X Boxes and smart phones, is it still possible to concoct a spectacle capable of filling an audience with awe?

The creative team behind the great ape’s latest incarnation struggles valiantly with the first of these two conundrums. Their efforts yield, to put it gently, uneven results. When it comes to the second question, though, the show is truly breathtaking, so much so that the sense of wonder its gargantuan star provokes almost compensates for the inconsistencies in its score and script.

Like the movie, KKAOB takes place in Depression era Manhattan. But its heroine is decidedly more proactive. Ambitious Ann Darrow, (Christians Pitts) a farmers’ daughter from the Midwest, dreams of being a Broadway star. She auditions tirelessly, but finds the competition fierce and the jobs scarce. Down to her last few pennies, she is loitering in a greasy spoon one night when a waiter tries to get fresh with her. She gives the chap a well-deserved biff on the chin, and the commotion attracts the attention of impresario Carl Denham (Eric William Morris). Denham buys Ann a hot meal, and presents her with an offer to star in his new movie. There’s a catch, of course. The picture will be shot on Skull Island, uncharted terrain rumored to be populated by primordial beasts. It’s sure to be a treacherous journey, but with few prospects on the horizon, Ann decides accept Denham’s proposal. No sooner has the boat launched than tensions begin to simmer. Ann puts up resistance when Denham wants to shoot a test reel of her screaming. Uncomfortable in the role of damsel in distress, she’d rather roar with power than screech in terror. The sailors, too, get tired of doing Denham’s bidding, and Ann again asserts her strength by quelling a potential mutiny. The only person who doesn’t seem to have a problem with Denham’s tyranny is his faithful factotum, Lumpy (Erik Lochtefeld) a gentle soul who takes a liking to Ann. When the crew comes ashore, they find no indigenous people (and therefore no offensive stereotypes) on Skull Island. There are, however, sentient trees, and Ann finds herself bound by grasping vines, unable to escape when the big primate comes to call. As the giant King slowly emerges from the sultry darkness, Ann is awed but not afraid. When he roars, she roars back. More protector than predator, he rescues her from a giant serpent  and she, in turn, uses her homespun wisdom to remedy a wound he has acquired during the fight.

Their bond deepens when Denham has his people tranquilize Kong and ship him to New York, where he’ll become the center piece of a new musical extravaganza. Ann, heartbroken at seeing the majestic animal in chains, wants to walk out on Denham, but the avaricious showman threatens her into fulfilling her contract. Thus, like Kong himself, she is held captive and put on display. Inevitably, though, the need for freedom proves stronger than any psychological or physical bonds imposed by an exploitative system. Liberty may have its price, but both Ann and the King are (and Lumpy, too, in the show’s most skillfully written scene), are willing to take their chances.    

Christiani Pitts is passionate and appealing as the spirited Ann, and impressively holds her own even when playing opposite her 20-foot costar. Lochtefeld, amid the production’s noise and derring-do, manages to turn a small, quiet moment into one of the show’s few poignant beats. They could do better still with stronger material: the songs aren’t particularly memorable, and some of the dialogue is so on-the-nose that the characters begin to feel more like polemics than people. But when the magnificent brainchild of creature designer Sonny Tilders takes the stage, these shortcomings recede into the distance. Kong is not merely a mechanical marvel, but a living, breathing creature endowed with soul. In one particularly heart-stopping moment (in a word, a gorilloquy), the orchestra goes quiet and Kong is alone onstage, his penetrating eyes taking in the audience, his guttural noises expressing more truth than can be found in any of the play’s homilies. It’s the beauty of the beast that keeps this show from becoming the most dreaded of Broadway monstrosities: a colossal turkey.

KING KONG continues through April 14, 2019 at the Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway, between 52nd & 53rd Streets. Tickets @ Telecharge.com.

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