Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway at 53rd Street, Manhattan

King Kong
Review by Deirdre Donovan

Open run

Click to see production photos here...

The biggest star on Broadway this season is a 20-foot high 2,000-pound giant gorilla.

It’s easy to shrug off King Kong as an epic folly. For two and a half hours, one sees far more spectacle than story. But even so, the show provides two and a half hours of genuine, goose-bump raising entertainment.

Where to start? Naturally, with the book by Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) that humanizes Kong, Marius de Vries’ primal-colored score matched with Eddie Perfect’s lyrics, Peter England’s eye-popping set and projection design, and Drew McOnie’s snappy choreography (he also directs). Add to that, the fearless acting of principals Christiani Pitts, Eric William Morris, and Erik Lochtefeld as Ann Darrow, Lumpy, and Carl Denham, respectively.

But good as the production values are and the acting, it is Kong himself, a 20-foot high 2,000-pound giant gorilla that steals the show. Manipulated by a posse of performers in plain view of the audience, he’s quite a sight to behold. What makes him come alive is an ingenious mixture of robotics, puppetry, and stagecraft. But no matter how Kong manages to move and breathe on stage, he is a WOW! to behold.

The story, you may recall, takes place in the 30s and shifts from New York City, to the SS Wanderer, to the distant uncharted Skull Island. Based on the 1932 novel (you can get it as a Kindle book and read the new introduction by Jack Thorne), it is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, except that it has more urban flavor. Interestingly, in Thorne’s contemporary interpretation, Ann is no damsel-in-distress or a blonde. She is portrayed as a black woman who knows her own mind. And, as the narrative plays out, she tragically makes Kong vulnerable to his predators.

Whereas Thorne takes poetic license with the 1932 novel (the famous film of the same name surfaced the following year) and significantly changes Ann’s image, you still get all the thrills and chills tucked in the source. In other words, you witness a beast plucked from his native habitat on Skull Island and put on exhibition in New York City, only to escape and go on a rampage through the city.

Beyond the spectacle, what fascinated me about the show is how it follows in the same vein as other stories about monsters, notably Dracula and Frankenstein. Just as Mary Shelley’s creature Frankenstein had an inner life, this reincarnated Kong at the Broadway Theatre looks out at the audience, in crucial moments, with soulful eyes.

If the new treatment of Kong is spectacular, the Perfect’s songs are only serviceable. And with no song to hum as you leave the theater, the show has a real drawback.

It may be worth mentioning too that King Kong is NOT a musical but is categorized as a drama with music. Evidently, the powers that be here felt that musicalizing King Kong would compromise their creative impulse to retell the story in a meaningful and contemporary manner.

Okay, King Kong might not be the blockbuster hit that its creative team promised. But if you want a real pulse-raising theatrical experience that expands the Kong legacy, you can’t go wrong with this show.

Open run

At the Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway at 53rd Street, Manhattan

For more information and tickets, phone 212-239-6200.

Running time:  2 hours; 30 minutes with one intermission.

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