Eighty-five years after he stomped through the Big Apple, King Kong has returned. And he makes quite an entrance in his Broadway debut, all ivory teeth gleaming through the darkness. Then comes the dramatic reveal of a 20-foot-tall, one-ton combination of state-of-the-art animatronics and puppetry, bolstered by the best lighting, audio and projections that a $35 million budget can buy. A star is born – you’ll go gaga over the Eighth Wonder of the World.
Which is to say that the main attraction holds up his end of the bargain in King Kong. Everything else in the musical that surrounds him is one slip on a banana peel after another. Thanks to composers Max Steiner in 1933 and John Barry in 1976, the property has already been thrillingly musicalized on film. Adding insipid power ballads (credited to the optimistically named Eddie Perfect, one of the many Australians bringing this import from Oz) drains the excitement, as we impatiently await the star’s next appearance. Most of them are sung by Christiana Pitts, as Ann Darrow, the girl in the monkey’s paw. Reimagined as a farmer’s daughter who plans to be the “queen of New York” on its stages, then regrets her choice when promoter Carl Denham (Eric William Morris) and crew extract her costar from his Skull Island home, Ann is more woke than her predecessors, which might open some new dramatic possibilities.
But the book, by Jack Thorne (sullying his Tony for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a superior mix of story and spectacle), closes them all off, and heads in curious directions. Hostile natives may not cut it for today’s audience, though the clinging vines that entrap Ann for Kong are a puzzling substitute. Let’s just say that if you ever wanted to know the tragic backstory of Lumpy (Erik Lochtefeld), Denham’s aide-de-camp, and the only other significant human in the show, this is the King Kong for you. The title of one tune, “Broadway Nightmare,” neatly encapsulates the show.
Gridlock is more interesting to watch than the leap-and-jump choreography of director Drew McOnie, who admittedly had bigger concerns. Kong is basically yoked to the ensemble members, who move him into place as unobtrusively as possible, and help him gallop, advance toward the edge of the stage, and do other tricks. Selling the animal act is his expressive face – those lips, those eyes, how soulful they are, under deadening circumstances. Creature designer Sonny Tilders should be given full custody of his creation once the show closes and be allowed to take him on the road. This production is too timid to let Kong sing, but imagine the possibilities: The Kong and I. Kinky Kong. Kiss Me, Kong.