King Kong has set a new bar on Broadway. It is a visual feast that does for stagecraft in 2018 what the movie did for filmmaking in 1933 – marks a new era of what’s possible. And it’s not all about the two-thousand-pound gorilla in the room. Although his presence is magnificent, the entire production team has been touched by magic and the marvels start the moment the curtain rises at the Broadway Theatre.
Like the original movie, the musical King Kong is set in 1931, two years after the Wall Street crash and two years into the Great Depression. The opening number, called simply “Prologue” in the Playbill, is a song and dance number by the ensemble about how New York City is striving and thriving “Look at the city going up going up/Never gonna stop/Never gonna give up…” The stage directions at the beginning of the script say that the house is in darkness, and our eyes slowly adjust to sky walkers attached to ropes being lowered until they’re fully “immersed into the heart of Manhattan.”
When the curtain opens, we see construction workers dangling from ropes dropping down from the ceiling as giant scaffolding is also lowered in the foreground. In the background we see buildings rising up from the ground. It’s impossible to tell from the audience perspective just what we’re looking at – it all seems as if a city is actually lowering and rising up before our eyes. What we don’t realize for a moment is that the entire back of the stage is a giant cyc that has buildings projected onto it that look incredibly real. The scaffolding that has lowered onto the stage is three dimensional, but the buildings are not. And as the ensemble continues the number, at one moment they’re spread across the stage in an inverted “v” pattern. They’re crouched down with their hands stretched out from their shoulders and the wide part of the “v” is downstage with the small end upstage, mirroring the fading perspective of the buildings. It’s a breathtaking image. It looks like they’re stretching down the street quite a ways and getting smaller. The synergy between Drew McOnie, the Director and Choreographer, and Peter England, the Scenic and Projection Designer, exhibited in this moment is a promise of what’s to come.
And technically, what’s to come is even more magnificent. Unfortunately, the story is identical to the original movie and is still as weak and ridiculous. Maybe even more so in this supposedly enlightened day and age. I doubt there’s anyone in the theater who doesn’t flinch when the giant gorilla is hoisted onto the boat in chains to be brought back to the U.S. (can you say “slave ship” boys and girls?). So, it’s a good thing the production values are so astronomically high. In fact, aside from the miracle of Kong himself, I think my favorite, most jaw dropping effect after the opening scene, was the ship sailing on the ocean. The audience gasped when the ship set sail and I swear they need to give out Dramamine pills.
But oh, the miracle of Kong. McOnie does an excellent job of building the tension from the moment the ship arrives on Skull Island. Creepy vines drop down and we sense that some of those vines are vine spirits who crawl amidst the travelers who don’t see them. Ann Darrow (Christiani Pitts) grabs the vines and twines her hands in them and poses for Carl Denham the Director (Eric William Morris) who is shooting her. She twists and turns and jumps on a rock and, still posing, lets out a huge scream for the camera. Immediately, there is a HUGE ungodly roar. The Captain (Rory Donovan) tells the men to check their ammo and Lumpy (Erik Lochtefeld) tells Ann to get down but she can’t. The vines are drawing her up and up into the air. Carl won’t stop shooting film, Ann is crying up in the sky trapped by the vines and there’s another roar and the sound of feet moving closer and the sound of breathing. A huge eye appears high over Ann’s head. Kong roars again, Carl runs closer, still shooting and tells Ann to look at the camera, The Captain tells the men to aim high and away from Ann, three guns go off and Kong roars, swats Carl and grabs Ann and runs off with her.
Kong is huge. Two thousand pounds and two stories high. In his hand, Ann looks like a day-old kitten. He is a marionette, a hand puppet and a motorized creature all in one. He is operated by 14 performers dressed in black called The King’s Company that you don’t notice until Kong has dragged Ann off to his lair. He is also operated by 3 people back stage controlling the motorized parts of his face that move. There are 45 points of movement on his body. Only his face is controlled by motor. Some of his limbs are moved manually by the King’s Company, but many of his movements are controlled by cables. It’s an amazing dance that you notice for a few minutes and then forget. Especially when he fights the giant snake in an epic battle.
I’m not usually an action or horror movie type. My friends know I’m a wuss and can’t stand blood and violence. There’s no blood in King Kong. There’s a very endearing big gorilla with sad, expressive eyes who I guarantee you will fall in love with. And there’s amazing, innovative stagecraft. And that’s enough for me.
(Photo by Matthew Murphy)
What the popular press says...
"The only reason for this King Kong to exist is its title character."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"The titular creation, designed by Sonny Tilders, is truly impressive: a 20-foot, 2,000-pound animatronic marvel that would be the pride of any amusement-park thrill ride."
Adam Feldman for Time Out New York
"Director/choreographer Drew McOnie keeps the action moving well enough, starting with a knockout montage sequence, but after a while, the dancing starts to seem like a "Hamilton" rip-off. But none of that matters if seeing a giant life-like gorilla puppet on the stage is your idea of great theatre, and it is awesome. All others: enter at your own risk."
Roma Torre for NY1
"Even if the star puppet might be better suited for an arena spectacle or theme-park attraction, you can't take your eyes off this technological marvel, not least for its incredible facial expressiveness. It's completely appropriate that the animatronic gorilla and its operators get the show's final bow."
David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter
"It’s all about the 2,000-pound gorilla in the room, and this visually dazzling production delivers big time despite a mishmash of styles and generic tunes."
Frank Rizzo for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...