NYTG at the Opening Night of King Kong on Broadway

Kong - the undisputed king of puppetry and stage technology - roars at the Broadway Theatre...

Erik Lochtefeld, Christiani Pitts & Eric William Morris

There is a moment in the new Broadway production of King Kong, which officially opened last night at the Broadway Theatre, where the monstrous, six-metre high puppet, weighing 1.2 tons, approaches the front row of the orchestra from his usual downstage positioning. The gasp from the audience and the sheer scale and enormity of this technological marvel is truly a wonder, if you'll excuse the pun, to behold and I had never experienced a moment like that in a theatre before... period.


King Kong
(Photo by Matthew Murphy)

At the performance I attended, audience members in my immediate vacinity were so vocal at points during the show, it became audible that for some, it was their first time in a Broadway theatre: "I've got to treat mysef to Broadway more often!" I heard one lady behind me saying to her companion. That's what a show like King Kong is all about. If we're going to be honest, it was probably never destined to be the Critic's Pick of the New York Times, but not all theatre is there for the benefit of purists and hardened theatre critics. And vice versa, not all demographics of society will flock to see Glenda Jackson take on King Lear next spring either, but the spectacle of King Kong will undoubtedly capture a youngster's imagination and casual or first-time theatregoers may just get bitten by the theatre bug which opens up a whole new world to them.

Last night the New York Theatre Guide was invited to attend Opening Night and we caught up with both the show's director and choreographer Drew McOnie and leading lady Christiani Pitts at the Rockefeller Center after-party. At just 33 years of age, McOnie is making his Broadway debut at the helm of a $35 million dollar production and Pitts leads the cast as a re-imagined, empowered Ann Darrow in just her second Broadway credit (following her turn as Jane in A Bronx Tale). The immense pressure on such a young pair of shoulders must be mammoth and yet a small price to pay for the realization of a childhood dream.


King Kong Director/Choreographer Drew McOnie
(Photo by Tom Millward)

"I spent so much time imagining and dreaming about this moment," McOnie tells me. "But as any kinda young kid daydreams, you never think it’s actually going to happen. For me, my Mum always used to say: “Shoot for the moon and you’ll land amongst the stars.” And here I am, walking on the moon!"

When you walk into the Broadway Theatre, one thing you might notice is that there's a word conspicuous by its absence on all of the artwork for Kong... and that word is "musical". There is, of course, a score in King Kong, composed by English music producer Marius de Vries, whose previous credits also include Baz Luhrmann's "Romeo + Juliet" and "Moulin Rouge!" as well as "La La Land". And there are songs provided by Australian singer-songwriter Eddie Perfect, but the production nevertheless defies categorization.

"It didn’t follow the rules of what a musical should be like," says Christiani Pitts. "I think they wanted to just leave it with an ambiguous title so that people would come and find out for themselves. Is it a play with songs? You know what I mean? It’s all up for your own interpretation... And unlike any other musical, no one sings to each other. I have one song to Kong, but apart from that, every other song is within a character’s heart or head. They don’t sing to another actor."


Christiani Pitts
(Photo by Austin Yang)

"It sounds like a brilliant one-liner from a Mel Brooks movie, doesn’t it?" adds McOnie. “We’re gonna make King Kong a musical and we’re gonna take it to Broadway!” [in a faux Mel Brooks accent] It’s an instant comedy, right?... We didn’t want to call it a musical because a) it’s a non-traditional format – we didn’t want people to come in and ask “Where’s the 11 o’clock number?” or anything like that – and b) we wanted it to be looked at in an unconventional way. We wanted people to come in expecting the unexpected."

And there are indeed plenty of unexpcted pleasures to be enjoyed in King Kong, from McOnie's signature choreography, almost relentless for the first 20 minutes of Act I, to modern songs such as "Queen of New York" and "Scream for the Money" that wouldn't seem out of place on a Destiny's Child album. The LED projections are a bold mix of the cinematic and the theatrical and the scale of puppetry and effects, whether Kong is battling a giant serpent or scaling the Empire State Bulding, is unprecedented. But for all its spectacle, it is the quieter moments, such as the melancholic gaze of a Kong in chains towards the only woman that understands him, that tell the story and speak to us.

"I think you can expect to have your heartstrings tugged on in a way that you’re not prepared for," Pitts reveals. "And I think you’re going to be a part of history. This is the first time this sort of technology has ever been introduced to a Broadway stage. I think it will be amazing to just come to a show and leave knowing you were part of history – that’s an unbeatable experience!"


Christiani Pitts in King Kong
(Photo by Matthew Murphy)


Eric William Morris, who plays Carl Denham
(Photo by Austin Yang)


Erik Lochtefeld, who plays Lumpy
(Photo by Austin Yang)


King Kong songwriter Eddie Perfect
(Photo by Tom Millward)


Erik Lochtefeld, Christiani Pitts & Eric William Morris
(Photo by Austin Yang)

King Kong Tickets are available now for performances through to April 14, 2019.