Not since a high-spirited stallion named Joey burst through the mist, nostrils flaring and mane flying, in 2011’s War Horse has there been so charged a Broadway entrance as when the master of Skull Island first appeared.
It came eight long scenes into King Kong, which is now playing at the Broadway Theatre. A howl preceded it, followed by the ominous thumping of monster pads on jungle soil. A rampage ensued over rocks and through ensnaring vines as the audience roared in delight. Like the rising helicopter in Miss Saigon and the falling chandelier in The Phantom of the Opera, the money effect has done its job after a build-up calibrated for maximum impact.
Everything about the new musical refashioning of King Kong is supersized. The ape itself is 20 feet tall and weighs one ton. It requires a phalanx of 14 handlers along with, unlike Joey, technology worthy of a NASA control module to achieve its audio-animatronic simulation of sentience. (Like its cinematic forebear, it is oddly, if thankfully, sexless.)
When Kong roars, the orchestra seats in the Broadway Theatre shudder. Your memory processors might cast you back to 1974, when Sensurround was introduced to enhance moviegoers’ experience at Earthquake. There’s a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on. You might even harken back to meeting Disney’s inaugural audio-animatronic wonder, Abe Lincoln, at the 1964 World’s Fair.
Bunraku Kong prowls, leaps and tumbles trough a high-tech bouncy castle of effects, including dizzying projections (Peter England is responsible for the sets and projections) that spin us from the squalid streets of Depression-era New York to prehistoric, livestock-teeming Skull Island and back again. The ship carrying director Carl Denham (Eric William Morris), his ingenue star Ann Darrow (Christiani Pitts) and crew yo-yos with the ocean swells.
So why, with all this bigness, does King Kong feel so small and vaguely sickening?
King Kong the musical is the brainchild of Global Creatures, an Australia-based producer of arena shows in which noisy audio-animatronic dinosaurs duke it out for world dominance: tractor pulls for the NatGeo set. An earlier version of the show, presented in Melbourne in 2013, was deemed too faithful to the 1933 film and essentially scrapped, except for the $4.5 million Kong puppet, devised by Sonny Tilder with movement by Gavin Robins. Many drafts later, the current version is the work of book writer Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), with a score by Marius de Vries (La La Land and Moulin Rouge!) and songs by Eddie Perfect (Beetlejuice).
Focusing the story on Denham, Darrow and the great gorilla they capture and bring to Times Square with disastrous results, Thorne scrapped inconvenient elements from the film. Gone is the love story between Ann and first mate Jack Driscoll. Gone are the wild-eyed, bone-accoutered dancing natives. New is a crewmember named Lumpy (Erik Lochtefeld). Lumpy has a good heart and a Jiminy Cricket-like tendency to focus Ann’s fungible conscience.
Thorne’s script is a jammy jar of howlers, and I’m not just referring to Kong’s hollering. When the monster, having palmed Ann, bounds off into the wilds of Skull Island, Carl laments, “Oh, if only I could’ve saved just a few feet of film! That beast is a King, he’d thrill the world.” Nice guy. Soon Carl sings, “This is not the end of me / ’cause this beast is clemency / it’s like he was sent for me.”
Soon enough, Ann and Kong are practically setting up housekeeping on the island. I’m exaggerating, but not by much: “Why do I feel so alive / right here at the top of the sky,” she sings, after plastering his wounds with mud and singing him to sleep, “So much more that I’ve yet to find / it’s like he knows me.”
The more King Kong sinks into the quicksand of its own banality, the less engaged we become with the vaunted effects, which, like the score, grow cheesier and cheesier. The stage will be slashed with laser beams (the lighting is by Peter Mumford) that were a cliché decades ago. The orchestra, under the supervision of David Caddick, excels at clamor. Drew McOnie’s traffic-cop direction and callisthenic choreography create comic-book images of dazzling clunkiness, even with the swirling weighted hemlines of Roger Kirk’s dresses for the women dancers.
As for the quartet of leads, Pitts has grit but lacks star-is-born charisma that would make us root for her (and her screams are just pathetic). Morris turns Denham into a creep no girl would follow across the street, let alone to Skull Island. Lochtefeld is touching, but in a crudely manipulative role. As for Kong, well, despite what you may have read, the puppet is kinda meh, its bag of expressive tricks unexpectedly limited and its reliance on all those scrambling handlers distracting from his plight.
So, to answer the question of why this show seems so small: Kong isn’t the only mechanical creature on the Broadway Theatre stage. The entire enterprise reeks of condescension, underestimating an audience’s intelligence. King Kong is destined to join Cirque du Soleil’s Paramour and Sony Pictures Entertainment’s Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark on the scrap-heap of recent Broadway megaflops in which OMG effects were given priority over people. Bad idea.