Theatre Review: King Kong
Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway, New York, NY
Directed by Drew McOnie
Reviewed by Scott Klavan
November 29, 2018
There’s something missing from the current musical of the classic monster movie King Kong, at the Broadway Theatre. Hard to put a finger on—Is it an ape? No, there’s a giant puppet of Kong, created with huge imagination and skill by Global Creatures of Australia. Um, music? There are songs by Eddie Perfect, a score by Marius de Vries, and a bunch of dances. Got to be something else… Actors? Nope. Competent performances by the three leading players. What else? Oh, I’ve got it: Sex! The entire theme of “Beauty and the Beast” depicted so forthrightly and sensuously in the original 1933 film—and dealt with self-indulgently or cleverly skirted around in other screen versions—has been purposely removed. Technology has replaced passion here, and while the machinery is Grade A and there are a few effective attempts to regain the underlying humanity, the story is muddled and, unlike Kong with main character Ann, doesn’t grab us.
The production team must have struggled updating the 85-year-old story, because the musical King Kong first opened five years ago, in June of 2013, in Melbourne and went through many changes of creative personnel. At various times, noted playwrights Craig Lucas and Marsha Norman were involved, as were singer/songwriter Sarah McLachlan and Jason Robert Brown, composer of the musical of The Bridges Of Madison County. None of them are now credited on the show, which has over 30 producers and is directed and choreographed by Drew McOnie. An educated guess would be that the portrayal of Ann Darrow, the aspiring actress hustled out of New York and onto a boat by ruthless, egocentric film director Carl Denham, to a remote island to shoot a mysterious movie, was the reason for the turmoil.
The original 1933 movie, directed by Merian C. Cooper, with legendary, still-astounding special effects and animation by Willis O’Brien, was an innovative smash, and spawned the immediate, now-forgotten sequel Son Of Kong, remakes in 1976 and 2005 and a slew of imitators and knock-offs, including 1949’s Mighty Joe Young, and—a personal favorite—Bela Lugosi Meets A Brooklyn Gorilla (1952), up until the recent straightforward action variations Kong: Skull Island and Rampage, with Dwayne Johnson. The film’s amazing attacks by prehistoric creatures on the island undoubtedly influenced Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park.
A re-watching of the first King Kong reminds us how unabashedly Ann (Fay Wray) is presented as a softly alluring, seductive woman; in fact, her eroticism is what the story is about. Ann rouses feelings of lust and love and she is both wanted and feared by the men around her. Those powerful male emotions are symbolized and embodied by the gigantic, destructive Kong, who reigns in the jungle but cannot survive in a civilized world. Kong is very much a libidinous animal in this; the first expression on Kong’s face when he sees Ann is one of desire, and the island “natives” who kidnap her offer her up as Kong’s “bride.” When he has her alone, the Pre-Code 1930s Kong undresses Ann, touches her and even smells his fingers. In the 1933 film, after King Kong is shot off the Empire State Building, director Denham (Robert Armstrong) has the famous last line: “It was beauty killed the beast.”
The 1976 movie remake, known as the Dino De Laurentiis version, after its tabloid flamboyant producer, had Jessica Lange as Ann in her first—and worst—screen performance. This one did deal directly with sexuality, but in a juvenile manner, as Ann, abducted by leering Kong, is forced into a whirlpool which conveniently turns the sequence into a wet T-shirt contest. Ann tries feebly to fight back, but the best she can do is squeakily excoriate Kong as a “chauvinist pig ape!” The interpretation, the whole film is unintentionally funny and forgettable, the effects lame. The 2005 remake is many cuts above, directed by Peter Jackson of The Lord of The Rings trilogy, with state-of-the-art CGI and a much more considered story-line. Naomi Watts’s Ann, while beautiful, is also a smart, resourceful vaudeville performer here, doing charming stunts and dances for Kong as a way of distracting him. Kong, with anthropomorphic tendencies, becomes more of an affectionate protector than her scary sexual abuser. The two form a touching bond and Kong even skates with Ann-in-hand on a frozen NYC pond.
The 2018 musical offers a different take, revolving almost solely around Ann’s ambition. Ann, played by Christiani Pitts, arrives in New York from a Midwest farm, and the number “Queen of New York” and other early sequences illustrate her determined drive to succeed in show biz. Ann is spunky and undeterred, but falls into Depression-era poverty. She is then helped out by Denham (Eric William Morris), who she meets in a diner; the director buys her food, but it is emphasized during this scene and repeatedly throughout the play, that Ann does not need saving, and, here and there, she even smacks a few guys to prove her toughness and self-sufficiency.
This might have been serviceable, if the creators had taken proper care of their storytelling. In the ’33 movie, Denham is a well-known director of jungle adventures reluctantly searching for an actress for his new project because, he says, movies have to have a romance. There are descriptions of his idea for the new picture: it will feature a legendary giant ape who is said to live in the exotic place. In the stage play, Denham’s reputation is never made clear and his idea for the movie on the island, or Kong’s existence there for that matter, not stated. The two head off with a crew on the boat, and as in the original movie, Denham takes weapons, “gas bombs,” with him, but, on stage, we never hear why. The show takes so much time constructing Ann’s transformation from fragile sexy ingenue to independent modern woman that the basic plot is left unattended.
On the boat, the musical reduces the ’33 movie’s love interest, the Captain (Bruce Cabot), a tough guy who is initially put off by all women, even telling Ann “I’m scared of you,” but soon goes nuts for her, to a minor role. (The 2005 film version gave Ann a sweet romance with writer Jack, played by Adrian Brody.) His place is taken by “Lumpy” (Erik Lochtefeld), a variation on a character in Jackson’s version, a super-nice sexless older sailor/cook whose daughter has died. No one puts the moves on Ann, or even flirts with her. Instead of the amorous on-board kisses of ’33 and ’05, the play switches in Lumpy’s pathos and gives a lot of emphasis to Ann’s proud repudiation of screaming in fear for her part in the movie. (This is in response to Fay Wray’s near-constant helpless shrieking in ’33; Watts’s 2005 Ann, while terrified, likewise kept it under wraps.)
On stage, when the group first encounters Kong, the sloppy plotting hurts the proceedings anew. Denham and company barely acknowledge that this is not a regular ape—it’s like a prehistoric out of this world big ape. Kong abducts Ann, but it is not for sex/love—it’s because of…I dunno, I guess he just likes to do stuff like that. Denham’s rationale for convincing Ann to go back to New York to exploit Kong is fuzzy and we don’t understand why she agrees, a key plot peg. There’s more, but you get it: story elements that could have been explicated with a line or three are sacrificed or ignored.
But in the middle of the botched story and forgettable songs of Act I, something odd happens: about 30 minutes of a really good musical. Ann’s song “Full Moon Lullaby,” sung to Kong while she is kept by him on a cliff near the end of the act, is nice. The opening section of Act II, after Kong is brought back to New York City, has a sharp number by Denham, “It’s Man,” and Ann’s “Last Of Our Kind,” linking her as an outsider to the ape, actually has a great melody and something to say. The presentation of Kong on stage in New York features a sardonically funny rehearsal and dance sequence.
Ultimately, Ann is presented as rebelling against cold ambition, or human hubris, in favor of compassion, or nature/God; it’s cloudy, we have to work too hard at it. For all of their reconfiguring and bald statement of Ann’s personality, the creators didn’t make the effort to clarify her inner dilemma. And the fix was right in their grasp: Ann is different than members of her sex; her feistiness is unusual compared to the passivity of the women of the 1930 time period. That’s what makes her an outsider. The initial change of concept was workable, if they had just dramatized it coherently. In any case, on stage, it’s dry and impersonal. There is no romantic or intimate relationship to lose or reclaim, Ann’s relationship is only with herself, and while that may adhere to the pattern of contemporary portrayals of women, it is unsatisfying. The final number “The Wonder” is something of a shouting mess, with a spirituality that is unearned. Given the amount of kids in the Broadway audience and the political atmosphere of our time, it just seems institutional pressure from those F-words, Family Friendly Feminism, went a long way towards fogging and mucking up the point of view here.
Christiani Pitts as Ann is hesitant in the fast singing and dancing at the top, but she excels in her ballads, and has an ingratiating sense of humor. Eric Michael Morris’s performance as Denham suffers too in the first act, likely due to the vagueness of his character. Denham is not allowed to be aggressive/mean and the actor is undefined in these scenes. But Morris does terrifically once Denham returns to New York and his abrasiveness and tenacity is finally let loose. Erik Lochtefeld is sincere and keeps Lumpy from becoming smooth and syrupy. Though it would have been nice if this sizable role had a song—“Lumpy’s Lament”?—because the musical onus falls repetitively on Ann and Denham.
(It needs to be mentioned that Christiani Pitts is African-American, and this change in the character received publicity when the project was first announced. Ann’s race is never mentioned on stage, and while her participation in many of the events might be historically inaccurate, silence was probably the best choice. There really would have been no practicable way to include this aspect in the story; it would have forced the tale in a different direction, or overwhelmed things anyway. The depiction of the islanders in all the movies is stereotyped and the musical wisely leaves those characters out too.)
It’s a machine age we live in and the technical aspect is where the production puts its passion. Kong himself is the star, listed as 20 feet high and 2,400 lbs. with 10 puppeteers operating him. Kong is cool and does deliver, especially when he approaches closely to the audience, roaring, as he escapes in New York. Although, if there are quibbles to be made, the operators and cables are obviously evident and this does lessen the magic, particularly when Kong is tied up on stage in New York; he doesn’t look newly burdened—in the movies, he was heartbreakingly “crucified”—because we’ve been watching the ropes/guys continually move him around. Kong’s fight with the serpent, a brutal highlight in ’33, seems too awkward and complicated for the stage. But when Kong’s expression changes, there are unaccountable moments of genuine hurt and sadness from the puppet. (Danny Miller is listed as the Face of Kong. Jon Hoche is his Voice.) This is riveting and demonstrates how affecting the new show might have been. The musical version of King Kong kills the beauty and that’s a beast.
Scott Klavan, theatre writer at Escape Into Life, is an actor, director, and playwright in New York. Scott performed on Broadway in Irena’s Vow, with Tovah Feldshuh, in regional theater, and in numerous shows Off Broadway, including two productions of The Joy Luck Club for Pan Asian Rep. His stage adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” was produced off-Broadway by Theater Breaking Through Barriers (TBTB), and his play Double Murder was published in Best American Short Plays of 2006-2007. For twenty years, Scott was Script and Story Analyst for the legendary actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and for companies including HBO, Warner Bros. and Viacom. In 2015, he was featured in A Soldier’s Notes, an episode of the Web Series Small Miracles, alongside Judd Hirsch, and earned a nomination for Outstanding Actor in the LA Web Series Festival. He directed the one-woman show My Stubborn Tongue, written and performed by Anna Fishbeyn, off-Broadway at The New Ohio Theater and at the United Solo Festival. Scott directed and appeared in the solo play Canada Geese, by George Klas, in the 2016 New York International Fringe Festival. He is currently directing and developing the play One Moment, by Broadway producer James Fuld, Jr. In 2017, he directed and co-wrote with Del Fidanque Off-Line and directed Night Shadows by Lynda Crawford, in Emerging Artists Theatre’s (EAT) New Work Series. He is a Lifetime Member of The Actors Studio and a member of the Studio’s Playwright/Directors Workshop. He teaches at the 92nd St. Y and other arts organizations.