By Sandi Durell
It’s a truly reimagined rendering of the giant silverback gorilla as you may have seen him in the 1933 movie, where the lissome and beautiful Fay Wray was the struggling female in the palm of the ape. This is a BIG Australian $35 million dollar musical of historic technological proportions as you will see in Sonny Tilders vision of a giant 2000 lb., 20 foot puppet, operated by 14 different performers in the ensemble who have become so adept at maneuvering him, that you can swear that Kong actually winked at you!
The lithe and lovely Christiani Pitts (A Bronx Tale), plays the title role of Ann Darrow, now a sharp, no nonsense 21st Century heroine chasing after her dream to be “Queen of New York” . . . what else . . . but a star on the Great White Way. The time period is 1931 where the old and new just walk side by side to envision this iconic film as a musical written by Jack Thorne, with a score composed by Marius de Vries and songs by Eddie Perfect.
Itching to make his mark as a filmmaker, a sly Carl Denham (played by a seemingly mild-mannered Eric William Morris – Mamma Mia!) hires a crew, led by Captain Englehorn (Rory Donovan – Finding Neverland) and the SS Wanderer to sail to parts unknown – – the mysterious Skull Island. His missing element: a young actress. When he meets Ann at a diner keeping warm, hungry from waiting on bread lines, tired of being told ‘no’ at auditions, he realizes she’s the perfect pigeon, as he persuades her to board the ship to star in his film. The rigorous, powerfully athletic dance ensemble is amazing to watch as choreographed by director Drew McOnie – “Building the Boat”/”Setting Sail” and “Pressure Up.” All the testosterone flying around on the stage seems to have easily transferred well into the female counterparts in the highly energetic movements.
With unquestionable highly technical organized video and projections (Artists in Motion) and scenic/projection design by Peter England, you might begin to feel seasick as the waters swell and the boat rocks.
Carl’s assistant or ‘yes man’ is the quiet unassuming Lumpy – real name Len (played by Erik Lochtefeld – Misery) who surprises later in the show.
Reaching their destination, not without peril of an almost mutiny, the group encounters eerie creatures (costumes by Roger Kirk) who slide up and down jungle vines as loud roars emerge through the mountainous maze of Skull Island and the beast appears claiming ownership. It’s a momentous moment as King Kong emerges, the audience both amused and maybe even a little frightened by the realistic presence. It becomes even more engaging as he grabs a brave Ann in his palm and “The Cobra Fight” begins as another puppet slithers in to tackle Kong as the lighting (Peter Mumford) creates flashes and beams, smoke covering the floor of the stage, with superb thunderous sound design by Peter Hylenski, as it all comes together in a plethora of movement, commotion and illusion that jar the senses.
Alas, Carl Denham has more devious thoughts in mind rather than attempting to save Ann. She’s almost an after thought when he realizes he needs her to calm the beast, now smitten with her, as she gently applies mud on his wounds and tenderly strokes his face… we genuinely can see a sad-eyed but thankful Kong and we care.
And as greed and deception dictate, Denham inveigles the Captain and crew to come aboard his new found plan; drug Kong, shackle him and take him back to New York where he’ll be on display as The 8th Wonder of the World, having already involved an unhappy Ann to “Scream for the Money.” But as Kong becomes more depressed longing for his roots, it is Ann (now possessed of money and beautiful things) who begs Carl to release him. And so Kong must now break his shackles and escape with Ann’s help . . . a “Broadway Nightmare” running through the streets of New York with Ann in tow, making his way up to the top of the Empire State Building. Of course, the majority of us know how this will end as planes swirl around him, bullets flying in “Air War.” The highly emotional conclusion sung by Christiani Pitts – “The Wonder” produces just what the creatives had hoped for – an overwhelming sadness noticeably felt by the viewers.
This is the underlying strength of the production: The extreme ability of the creator and well-trained handlers to actually elicit a sense of emotion through a puppet and . . . with a message. We fear what we don’t know or understand and ultimately want to destroy it. And, there are things much greater than ourselves and our own ambitions.
The score is a mixture of pop rock and swing with some very insightful lyrics. Christiani Pitts is a highly energized spitfire with a soaring voice and the huge cast is remarkable.
Will you learn anything new? Perhaps or maybe it’s just good to have an old iconic story unite with a more contemporary touch and as a reminder at a time when kindness, caring, and gentility should be at the forefront of everyone’s agenda. And, of course, there’s the spectacle of King Kong – a unique experience itself.
Photos by: Matthew Murphy
The Broadway Theatre (1681 Broadway at 53rd Street), run time: 2 hrs. 15 min. with intermission, open run www.kingkongbroadway.com