KING KONG has no reason to be a musical. It’s more like a two and half hour theme park attraction. Kong as gigantic, animatronic puppet is the star. All else seems like an excuse for a staged version of the 1933 classic film. The show distinguishes itself as the first musical in history where the leading man neither sings nor even speaks. He roars. A lot.
The book by Jack Thorne, who won both Olivier and Tony for “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”, is a bare-bones adaptation of the well-known tale. Film director Carl Denham convinces young, ambitious, down-on-her-luck actress Ann Darrow to sail on the Wanderer with him to Skull Island. With a suspicious captain and a mutinous crew, they’re off on a wild goose (gorilla) chase. Ann Darrow comes across Kong in the jungle. Kong takes a shine to her. Denham recognizes Kong as his ticket to fame and fortune as a producer and uses Ann as bait to capture Kong. Back in New York, Ann realizes that Kong is a nicer guy than Denham and refuses to allow Kong to be exploited as chained freak. Kong escapes from captivity of a Times Square theater with Ann, destroying everything in his path down Broadway, to meet his demise famously on top of the Empire State Building, Ann in his tender handgrip until the very end. We’ve all seen the movie.
Writer Thorne’s bang-you-over-the-head novelty is depicting Ann as victim as much as Kong, so we get a good, contemporary dose of women’s empowerment. But that’s as deep as this character gets. Christiani Pitts (last seen in “A Bronx Tale”) as Ann Darrow obliges this the material and sings unmemorable songs credited mostly to Australian composer Eddie Perfect as loudly and with as much ersatz passion she can muster. She finds a few sweet notes in a first act solo called “Full Moon Lullaby” / “Shine”. The talented Eric William Morris - almost too naturally affable to play the dastardly Denham - somehow navigates an underwritten role. He delivers the best musical number, "The Man Who Makes The Wonder", which opens the second act (and which was added during previews). Rory Donovan as the Wanderer’s captain and Erik Lochtefeld as Lumpy, Denham’s long-suffering aide de camp, go along for the ride. There’s an ensemble of over a dozen who are pedestrians on the streets of New York or hands on the Wanderer’s deck. They fill up space on stage when Kong’s not there and sometimes dance. The dance routines, choreographed by Drew McOnie, an accomplished British director making his Broadway debut, are ludicrous. But if one’s directing something called a musical, I guess one’s got to have dance whether it’s called for or not.
Thank God, the star, Kong, is on stage for more than half the show’s running time. His supporting crew - his creator/designer, ensemble of operators (about a dozen), sound and lighting designers, movement director, voice (credited to Jon Hoche) and technical team - create some terrifying scenes: first, when Kong stalks through the jungle, his yellow eyes peering out from the dark, revealing feature by feature this 20 foot beast, and later when Kong bursts from chains in the second act and advances to the lip of the stage, stands on hind quarters, leans over the first rows of the audience and roars. It’s an amazing spectacle of scale and integration of mechanical and robotic technique. An arced back-drop that accommodates moving digital and video projections makes Kong thundering down Manhattan streets or scaling the Empire State Building pretty astonishing, too. And there’s a nifty battle between a giant, slithering cobra and Kong before he’s drugged up for his doomed trip to civilization.
What’s most compelling is how Kong’s face conveys precise emotion: the raised eyebrow, the churl of the lip, the slight flare of the nostril. Pity the human cast: Kong, engineered and manipulated so convincingly, gets more characterization than anyone else on stage.
What’s most curious is the musical score by Marius de Vries, an accomplished composer of numerous movie soundtracks. Although the score is orchestrated (synchronized, really) with all Kong’s movement and special effects and although, without any lyric, it accounts for at least half the performed music - it lacks melodic theme. Zhivago’s Lara had a musical theme. Indiana Jones, too. Hell, even the great white shark in Jaws. Why not poor Kong? That’s the least of the problems of KING KONG - the musical that needn’t be.
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