Big, Black and On Broadway

But "King Kong," the musical, doesn't quite confront its disturbing history as a metaphor for racism.

King Kong
Christiani Pitts and King Kong in "King Kong." Photo: Matthew Murphy.

No, the title character doesn’t sing. Not even an unrequited-love torch song.

Yes, the King Kong puppet designed by Sonny Tilders for this musical adaptation, on Broadway, of the 1933 RKO classic King Kong, starring Fay Wray, is 2,000 or so pounds of ingeniously created movable parts. He pounds his chest. He bares his formidable teeth and he roars. He sniffs. He acquires expressions ranging from the terrifying to the doleful. He’s worth every dollar the producers spent on him.

And he’s handled by several men maneuvering handles and ropes, which tends to give him the look of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver being tamed by the Brobdingnagians.

Put another way, King Kong often looks powerful but at the same time powerless. Oh, well: the audience still goes for him, so he’s still worth whatever he cost.

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But is this musical adaptation any good? Let’s first ask a question about King Kong itself. Critics, since the initial release of the film, have noted King Kong‘s racist overtones. Should we note that this production arrives at a time when racism, under this administration, is as openly virulent as it was 85 years ago?

There’s no reason to believe the purveyors of this tuner had racism, or a response to it, uppermost in mind when they leapt on the bandwagon idea that every Hollywood drama and comedy ever made must be musicalized — including the one where the dark gorilla carries the white girl to the top of the Empire State Building as circling planes fire at him and kill him.

When King Kong opened in Australia five years ago, not only were parts of the creative team different — Craig Lucas wrote the book and co-wrote the lyrics — but so was the US. Racism, populism, nationalism: these couldn’t have been motivating factors. But there it is: a musical version of King Kong, capable of nudging if not all then some observers into realizing that they’re watching a metaphor for white fear of black men and also a metaphor for white fear of immigrants of every origin. King Kong doesn’t arrive in a caravan. He’s transported — under sedation, in chains — by boat. Not unlike a slave.

Maybe the creators of the original King Kong — scenarists James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose, and directed and produced by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack from an idea by Cooper and Edgar Wallace — didn’t sense the racist implications, the allegory, of their tale. Cooper denied it. I find it hard to believe.

Here on Broadway, the percolating undercurrents begin with the Playbill cover design: King Kong, his forepaws resting on the ground; the negative space between them, when seen as positive space, representing a tiny white woman. Is she about to be crushed? Point made.

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Now to King Kong, the musical, being good or not so good. It’s strongest elements include, again, the larger-than-life puppet (operated by some of the alumni of War Horse). There’s also good work by scenic and projection designer Peter England, costume designer Roger Kirk, lighting designer Peter Mumford, aerial and Kong movement director Gavin Robins, and Artist in Motion is credited with video and projection content. Together they will convince patrons that they’re getting their money’s worth.

But writing? Acting? Directing? Peter Thorne, whose script for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child currently delights audiences in both NYC and London, takes liberties with the King Kong plot that don’t pay off Harry Potter-like. Some of the action hardly makes sense: Film director Carl Denham (Eric William Morris, in an unrewarding role) takes an untried actress to the far-off and mysterious Skull Island to make an adventure flick?

What does have a little flair is the wannabe actress, Ann Darrow (Christiani Pitts), not only becomes sympathetic to King Kong and his “sad eyes” but prefers what she learns from the “beast” to the way that Carl, a cynical Svengali, treats her.

That Pitts — who sings, dances and acts with unflagging conviction — is African American certainly eases the racial-conflict angle. But it doesn’t totally erase it.

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The score for King Kong is composed and produced by Marius de Vries — a dubious assignment. It quickly becomes apparent that this is a musical only because the producers are convinced that musicals reap bigger revenues than straight plays, even with the promise of spectacle that King Kong has.

De Vries’s music — which will remind listeners of Andrew Lloyd Webber and the Boublil-Schonberg Les Mis team — is memorable up to and through the dying note of each song. The songs are by Eddie Perfect, whose gift for rhyming is, ironically, imperfect. De Vries and Perfect do possess the humor (consciously? unconsciously?) to provide Denham with a second-act opener in which he chants about offering the audience what they think they want. Clearly, de Vries and Perfect are writing what they know.

Also with King Kong, director-choreographer Drew McOnie makes his Broadway bow. Most recently, he served the same function for the London stage adaptation of Baz Luhrman’s Strictly Ballroom, and what a rousing job he pulled off: everything about it was strictly knockout. Would that it were imported here. McOnie’s King Kong work looks like what a director does when he understands that he’s dealing with not much quality material and further understands he must make it look light years more than that. So he rounds up a chorus of singers and dancers who regularly fill the stage doing something or another — often in unison, often in energetic combos. But eventually these singer-dancers come across as little more than nervous wrecks.

What surprised me most about King Kong has little to do with the bones of the project. It’s a strange feather of a moment in the show. It involves Darrow, per Thorne’s script, being entreated to perform at the opening night of the adventure flick, and a line that refers to Mary Ellis, Adele Astaire and Vivienne Segal, stars of the 1930s musical stage. How many theatergoers today know those names? And no Marilyn Miller? Oh, I could beat my chest. She’d have made a hotsy-totsy Ann Darrow.