This new musical version of King Kong, roaring its way onto Broadway, features some spectacular puppetry. But, though the ape is great, the score is wan and the plot a head-scratcher making for an incoherent theatrical experience.
The titular ape dominates Olivier-winning director and choreographer Drew McOnie’s production. Sonny Tilders’ creation is brought to life through a mix of animatronics, visible puppeteers, and the vocal performance of Jon Hoche, who supplies his anguished cries.
With his penetrating eyes and precise gestures, he’s astonishingly expressive. It’s possible to glimpse the gentle giant behind the fearsome exterior. The physical manipulation of the puppet is a show unto itself. Movement artists leap with dramatic flourishes from his back to raise his arms. They tuck themselves under his limbs and disappear.
Massive wrap-around cinematic projections allow the cumbersome creature to participate in thrilling ‘action’ sequences. This Kong cannot run, but the jungle can flash by him creating a sense of rapid movement. Not all the special effects are as effective — the bullets shot at Kong look like comedy lasers.
The human side of the story struggles to measure up. Based on the 1932 novelisation of the original film, the book by Harry Potter and the Cursed Child writer Jack Thorne disposes with the original’s racist caricatures and ideas of fragile femininity. It makes aspiring actress Ann Darrow (Christiani Pitts), the hero. Full of moxie, she’s discovered by film director Carl Denham (Eric William Morris). He wants her to star in his movie which is shooting on a remote desert island.
She insists she’s “not a damsel in distress” — in fact, she stops a mutiny, tames the wild gorilla who kidnaps her, and rescues herself from the ape’s clutches. But when she returns to New York with the domineering Denham and the caged Kong, she is filled with guilt for betraying the ape, even though she knows he will make her famous.
McOnie’s production is a mishmash, dabbling in B-movie battles and 1930s-style stage musical numbers featuring showgirls and strongmen; it also features some inexplicably sentient jungle moss.
Pitts does her best, though her task is a hard one and she struggles to compete with the beast. Erik Lochtefeld, as skittish, older sailor, Lumpy, brings warmth to his smaller role.
Though the show is set during the Great Depression, composer Marius de Vries and songwriter Eddie Perfect’s musical references confusingly veer from synth to rock to electronic. The lyrics are repetitive and often feel like filler —why is there a number about the ship’s boiler?
McOnie’s choreography makes use of a hulking upper-body dance language that feels ultra-contemporary and is also at odds with the 1931 setting and costumes. A dance number set against the backdrop of the ape-attack on New York is narratively bewildering.
If this King Kong was over-the-top in a campy way, all this might not matter as much. Instead, it feels painfully sincere. Only the ape’s expressive presence rescues it.