America has a new star, “King Kong”, designed by Jonny Tilders, manipulated by animatronics and puppeteers in a living, breathing believable beast and king of the jungle. King Kong demonstrates his prowess as he wrestles with a giant serpent confronts other challenges in his jungle world of Skull Island. He now lives once more as the tragic hero doomed to destruction by uncaring humankind. The scenery, traditional wood, and canvas, with laser lighting, designed by Peter England., made one feel was in the New York of the 1930s, on an ocean voyage, on Skull Island, inside a Broadway theater, and of course, the grand climax, climbing the Empire State Building and then falling to his death. The whole process reminded me of being inside the holodeck of Star Trek. The costume design by Roger Kirk faithfully reproduced the clothing sensibility of the 1930s. These are its great strengths. The music by Marius de Vries aided in creating the mood, especially in times of crisis and combat.
The weaknesses are the songs and the choreography. The songs by Eddie Perfect, Marius de Vries, and a few others are lackluster. The only memorable songs I felt was when Ann Darrow, played by Christiani Pitts, was introspective the beginning of the musical when she sang, “Queen of New York,” determined to overcome any obstacle to become a success, and toward the end, when she sang, “Scream for the Money, “ when she realizes that she betrayed her ideals and King Kong to get ahead. Too late, she realizes that she, too, is willing to betray anyone who stands in her way to achieve fame and fortune. The choreography by Drew McOnie at points seemed irrelevant and pointless at times such as dancing hardhats representing the construction activities such as building the Empire State building in the midst of the Great Depression.
Besides King Kong, we have three great actors: Ann Darrow, played by Christiani Pitts, Carl Denham, and Lump played by Erik Lochtefeld. The storyline has been inconsiderable changed from one of romance and adventure to one of self-growth and struggle. Carl Denham is the producer and director from hell, a mad Captain Ahab, an evil capitalist and uncaring egotist in pursuit of fame and fortune, no matter what the cost is to himself or others around him. He is the most unsympathetic of all incarnations of the producer/director of “King Kong.” The behind-the-scenes rehearsal that Carl Denham directs for his presentation of King Kong on Broadway of the 1930s adds an interesting backstory.
Unlike the 1933 and 2005 movie versions, Anne Darrow and Carl Denham are the key protagonists and dominate the musical. There is no love interest for Anne Darrow in the musical in contrast to “King Kong” when it was the first made in the 1933 movie when she fell in love with the first mate or the movie screenwriter in the 2005 version. Anne Darrow grows as a person and increasingly asserts herself but not sufficiently enough to stop Denham from his mad dreams and the ultimate disasters they cause. Erik Lochtefeld makes the most of his role as “Lumpy,” a new character introduced into the musical, that is supposed to serve as a conscience. Lumpy could be cut from the musical and not be missed.
Political correctness runs amuck in the musical in the script written by Jack Thorne. Notably missing is the lack of romance; instead, we are left with a picture about animal rights. The explorers manage not to meet the natives of Skull Island who in the 1933 and 2005 movies offer up human sacrifices to King Kong. The script tries to make Anne Darrow a feminist hero in the musical, not the passive princess awaiting rescue by the men. At best, she is an antihero who has taken part in the exploitation of King Kong for her own benefit. She is represented as a victim of capitalism who sacrificed King Kong to get ahead. Lumpy is introduced as the conscience against capitalism that Darrow and Denham lack. In 1933 and 2005 movies, the men are motivated to rescue Ann Darrow from King Kong because this is expected of what men are supposed to do, the nobler part of their natures. It is the money that motivates the men to capture King Kong in the musical. There are no ethnic types such as the Chinese cook in the original movie although Ann Darrow is played by a black woman In the musical. The issue of interracial romance is avoided by simply having no romance at all. Very little actual destruction of New York by King Kong is shown so that he emerges as a more sympathetic character.
Although the musical at the Broadway Theatre (1681 Broadway, NYC 10019) does not quite jell and has major flaws, “King Kong” the musical has elements of greatness that are achieved by its director Drew McOnie . In the end, I rose with most of the audience to applaud the production. What is next, a politically correct musical version of “Gone with the Wind”?