About 40 minutes into the show, right before Kong first appears onstage, the audience at King Kong on Broadway is crackling with excitement.
Ann Darrow (Christiani Pitts) is tied up, seemingly helpless and lost in the middle of a spooky forest when we hear a growl in the darkness. In one brilliant moment the part-animatronic, part-puppet animal that is nearly as tall as the stage appears in all his glory. Ann is lifted up to look the stunning giant in his all-too-human eyes. With the help of both onstage puppetry and behind-the-scenes workers, Kong opens his mouth and roars. The audience cheers. It’s a truly stunning feat.
If this was an attraction at a theme park, I’d give it five stars. Unfortunately, it’s a Broadway musical, not the latest from Universal. And while Kong the beast is magnificent, the show certainly isn’t.
While Kong the beast is magnificent, the show certainly isn’t.
The musical kicks off on the wrong foot almost immediately, with a ho-hum opening number that seems to throw a lot at the wall just to see what sticks.
The songs — a key part of any musical — by Marius de Vries and Eddie Perfect are almost uniformly terrible, a meshing of many styles that result in a score both earworm-free as well as dragged down by lyrics doing basic exposition work. A particular low point, from the first act, involves an almost-literal treading water song, where a bunch of sailors off to the mysterious Skull Island sing “Pressure Up,” which is a monotonous song about the monotony on the high seas. Ending number “The Wonder” seems to be telling you, despite what you may be feeling, you did in fact see something stunning.
The plot basically follows the well-worn story we all know of a damsel, an ape, and the horrors of modern society. As Ann, Pitts is strong, doing as much as she possibly can with this material. There was clearly an appreciated effort by book writer Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) to give the character a bit more agency than she is typically granted, less damsel in distress than spunky heroine. She doesn’t scream in distress, gentleman! She roars!
One stirring moment involves her initially bonding with her captor Kong after he has vanquished a cobra. Yes, really. It can’t be easy being the only human character on stage for extended periods of time, and she manages to hold her own opposite her 1.2 ton co-star and team.
Quick note about that team: I certainly can’t think of a better solution, but it was occasionally distracting to watch a group of people dressed all in black running around stage moving Kong’s body with ropes. They didn’t fade to the background or become one with the beast as they do in, say, Lion King, where there are two heads but your brain processes it as one. Sometimes the team moved in unison, as if to suggest they were a physical manifestation of the animal’s internal feelings. Other times, the puppeteers were simply going from point A to point B onstage individually, and it was clear you were to pretend as much as possible they weren’t there.
Easier said than done when it’s the most interesting thing happening.
There are other inexplicable choices made by director/choreographer Drew McOnie and the production team: Why are we treated to EDM music whenever Kong is running? Why is the director character Jack (Eric William Morris) boring and completely forgettable for much of the show? Why is a majority of the second act am extended meta show-within-a-show?
Perhaps you’ll be able to get past all that. If it’s spectacle and set pieces you’re after, there are a handful of moments that, yes, will wow you.
But we already have an incredible Kong — both the film original as well as the remakes — full of their own feats of technology. If we’re going to be in the business of turning popular movies into musicals (and the rest of the season suggests, yes, we are), it should bring something new to a familiar story: a compelling backstory or songs that open up the inner worlds of these characters.
Unfortunately, this has neither.