‘King Kong’ Is the Mess That Roared

Posted November 8, 2018 10:13 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — How to take on a one-ton gorilla? The New York Times sent both of its chief critics to “King Kong,” the $35 million, Australian-born musical that opened Thursday night at the Broadway Theater. Far from Skull Island and the wrath of Kong, they huddled to talk it out.

BEN BRANTLEY: Hello, Jesse. Though I’m not in a playful mood this morning — having just seen the spirit-crushing “King Kong” — what if we begin this dialogue with a game? Imagine you are on the street, having just left the theater, and are asked by a television interviewer to describe your response in one word. Well?

JESSE GREEN: It can’t be printed here, and I’m not even sure it’s one word. (It starts with “ape.”) So I guess I’ll go with “ugh.”

BRANTLEY: I understand what you’re saying. Since screaming is such a big part of the show, mine would be “aaaaaaaaargh.”

GREEN: We were hoping in reviewing this together that one of us might have something nicer to say than the other one does. But it looks like our opinions rhyme at least as well as most of the lyrics in the show.

BRANTLEY: You mean like, “But this is not the end of me/'Cause this beast is clemency”?

GREEN: When I see a musical drawn from a work in another genre — in this case the 1933 movie and its novelization — one thing I look for is the added value. What is gained in bringing “King Kong” to the stage? Certainly not provocative or insightful songwriting. The score is a hodgepodge of soundtrack-style murk by Marius de Vries and a clutch of no-profile songs by Eddie Perfect, whose score for “Beetlejuice” is heading toward Broadway even as we speak. Did you think the music added anything?

BRANTLEY: No, but I think you’re missing the point. The only reason for this “King Kong” to exist is its title character. So before we eviscerate the show, directed and choreographed by Drew McOnie, shall we briefly praise the animatronic ape (designed by Sonny Tilders)?

GREEN: Sadly, I have mixed feelings about Kong himself. Certainly he is the most expressive performer onstage, what with the platoon of puppeteers and voice artists bringing him to life. Only they don’t quite get there. Even aside from his long-waisted baby body, there is something logy and jowly about him; he seems like Khrushchev on Thorazine.

BRANTLEY: Yeah, I thought of a (barely) animated gargoyle from the Notre Dame cathedral. Disney casting agents, are you listening?

GREEN: The adapters of this “King Kong” seem to have two stories they wanted to tell. One is a morality tale about the evil of trapping a living being in a cheap entertainment scheme. To judge from my own misery in the audience, I’d say this is a theme they mastered.

BRANTLEY: And the other theme, would that be the equation of ape in captivity with the oppression of women?

GREEN: Yes. A feminist angle is attempted, not very convincingly. When the plucky farm girl Ann Darrow (Christiani Pitts) arrives in Manhattan intent on making it big in showbiz, it’s with an explicit streak of post-liberation consciousness. “At least I’m not some man’s property,” she sings in a song called “Queen of New York.”

BRANTLEY: And when Kong — dragged from his native Skull Island to Depression-era New York by the cynical, selfish and typically male showman Carl Denham (Eric William Morris) — has escaped from the theater where he’s been put on exploitative display, she sings a battle hymn of sympathy to him. (“From birth we’ve both been playing a game we cannot win/We’ll never break the lock or ever leave the box the world has put us in.”) GREEN: A car wreck of clichés like that simply can’t put a feminist story across meaningfully. Or any story, really — and that’s a bigger problem than the bad score and sluggish 20-foot marionette. I find it hard to believe that the book is by Jack Thorne, who won a Tony Award last season for writing “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.”

BRANTLEY: Yes, but as far as I can tell, the story — and the music and the gymnastic dancing — are basically just filler until Kong shows up again and looks noble and sorrowful and, occasionally (when Peter Mumford’s lighting is really low), menacing. Didn’t you sense the live performers knew they weren’t the main attraction?

GREEN: McOnie certainly had them working frantically. During the musical numbers, which feel relentless, the ensemble comes off as a troupe of overstimulated mimes playing charades. But here’s my question for you: Was there anything, aside from Kong’s two or three expressions, you actually enjoyed?

BRANTLEY: Not really. I kept hoping a higher camp factor might kick in. When poor Ann is taken to Kong’s lair, and makes quips about his housekeeping and bachelor ways, I longed for the reincarnation of Madeline Kahn, who made such blissful hay out of similar material in “Young Frankenstein.”

GREEN: The camp here is all accidental. The Skull Island jungle looks like green spaghetti with phlegm balls. (The scenic and projection designer is Peter England.) But the oppressiveness of the music and the overintensity of the staging never allow you to laugh at, and therefore enjoy, the ludicrousness of the story.

BRANTLEY: Agreed. By the way, if you look at accounts of the Australian incarnation of five years ago, which had a book by Craig Lucas, it featured several more characters, including a love interest for Ann. In this version, there are effectively three central human characters: the agency-seeking Ann; the chauvinist, bad-mogul Carl; and (oh, dear) his put-upon, slow-witted, golden-hearted assistant, Lumpy (Erik Lochtefeld).

GREEN: The bevy of previous authors discarded during the musical’s development dodged a bullet here. But Lochtefeld actually manages to give a sincere and human-scale performance, even if most of what he has to say is maudlin hogwash.

BRANTLEY: Yes, even the screams lacked eloquence. Fay Wray, the star of the original, is best remembered for her earsplitting howls of terror when she’s in the big guy’s clutches. But our intrepid Ann is incapable of screaming in fear. Instead, she roars, and that’s what attracts her soul mate Kong to her. Unfortunately, I didn’t hear a lot of Katy Perry power in Pitts’ scream. GREEN: Perhaps we are mistaken in applying arty standards to the cynical product of an ambitious entertainment company that made its name on animatronic arena shows. Character logic may not matter here as much as the intermission sales of the Kongopolitan (vodka, triple sec, cranberry juice and a splash of lime). I looked in vain for the Kong-branded Thorazine.

BRANTLEY: Gee, Jesse, it’s enough to make even you long for a margarita, with Jimmy Buffett melodies on the side.

GREEN: You are referring to “Escape to Margaritaville,” which until now was my musical theater low point of 2018. Jimmy, I take it all back.


Production Notes:

“King Kong”

Broadway Theater, Manhattan; 212-239-6200, kingkongbroadway.com. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

By Jack Thorne; score by Marius de Vries; songs by Eddie Perfect; directed and choreographed by Drew McOnie; sets and projections by Peter England; creature design by Sonny Tilders; costumes by Roger Kirk; lighting by Peter Mumford; sound by Peter Hylenski; hair by Tom Watson; video and projection imaging content by Artists In Motion; orchestrations by Christopher Jahnke; music direction and additional arrangements by Michael Gacetta; vocal arrangements by Eddie Perfect and Michael Gacetta; Kong/aerial movement director, Gavin Robins; music supervisor, David Caddick; production stage manager, Kathleen E. Purvis; production manager, Juniper Street Productions; company manager, Cathy Kwon; general manager, Foresight Theatrical and Mark Shacket. Presented by Carmen Pavlovic, Roy Furman, Gerry Ryan, Leon Blavatnik, Edward Walson, Benjamin Lowy, Bob Boyett, Harmonia Holdings, Peter Ivany, Peter May, Liebowitz/Grossman/Shields Productions, Iris Smith, Triptyk Studios, Bruce Robert Harris/Jack W. Batman, Robert Appel, Lynne & Marvin Garelick, The Shubert Organization, The Nederlander Organization, Jujamcyn Theaters, Audrey Wilf, Aleri Entertainment, Sandy Robertson, Jennifer Fischer, Fantaci/Carusi/Lachowicz, Darren DeVerna, Jere Harris, The John Gore Organization, 42nd.club, Independent Presenters Network and Global Creatures.

Cast: Christiani Pitts, Eric William Morris, Erik Lochtefeld, Rory Donovan, Harley Jay, Casey Garvin and Jon Hoche.