“He’s not a film,” cries director Carl Denham, vowing to bring the giant ape he’s discovered on Skull Island back to New York City. “He’s theater!”
The guardians of New York theater, it seems, would beg to differ. King Kong, the new $35 million musical from Australia that has just arrived on Broadway, has been stomped on by nearly all the critics. The New York Times was so appalled that the show is taking up precious space on the Great White Way (instead of, say, a pavilion at Disney World) that it assigned both its Broadway critics to do a tag-team envisceration. Ben Brantley called it “spirit-crushing.”
Well, it lifted my spirits. Maybe I was primed for some relief after enduring two of Broadway’s recent “serious” plays: Lifespan of a Fact, a ham-handed and witless issue-play about a journalist who fudges facts in pursuit of a ‘higher truth,” and American Son, Christopher Demos-Brown’s contrived, sledgehammer-subtle topical drama about an interracial couple whose son has had a run-in with the police. Good intentions don’t necessarily make good drama.
So it was refreshing, for a change, to bask in the pleasures of the big, brainless Broadway spectacle.
Spectacular it surely is. Kong is a 20-foot-high animatronic puppet, designed by Sonny Tilders, and manipulated with ropes and guy-wires by a team of a dozen puppeteers, many of them visible onstage. (A nod of thanks, once again, to Julie Taymor, who started it all in The Lion King.) He’s got a muscled, mobile, lifelike body and a face that can scrunch into anger, open in surprise, or plunge into sorrow. He’s massive enough to be credible, expressive enough to be lovable, scary enough to cause a few gasps in the front row when he busts his chains, rises to full height and stomps to the apron of the stage. Nor is he the show’s only impressive stage effect: from the opening girder-and-grit scenes of Depression era New York City (where the Empire State Building is just being built — nice touch), to the seasick-inducing waves that rock the ship on its voyage to Skull Island, the show is a visual treat.
And did I say brainless? Actually, writer Jack Thorne (who won a Tony for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) has made a number of shrewd choices in adapting the old monster story for the modern stage. He focuses, appropriately, on Ann Darrow (Christiani Pitts), the down-on-her-luck actress, who jumps when a film director (Eric William Morris) promises her stardom, accompanied by a few screams and the ape of her dreams. Thorne has wisely dumped the island’s tom-tom-beating natives (instead, the island appears to be populated by invisible spirits, cavorting amid the hanging vines), and any extraneous love interest for Ann. The focus is entirely on the beauty-and-the-beast story, with a feminist-environmentalist update — a little more politically correct, but no hokier than it was back in 1933.
I won’t make any great claims for the score by Eddie Prefect (additional music by Marius de Vries), a so-so mix of 1930s Tin Pan Alley and pop empowerment ballads. The kindly lug who befriends Ann onboard the ship, unfortunately named Lumpy, is too much of a stock sidekick in what seems a rather underpopulated cast. But I smiled all the way through King Kong, happy just to be in the company of a band of talented, innovative theater artists, taking on a near-impossible stunt and pulling it off. King Kong is enormous fun.