theater review

Theater Review: King Kong, Who’s There?

The big guy. Photo: Matthew Murphy

I mean, the monkey’s amazing. And we came for the monkey, right?

Theatergoers and theater-makers often complain about criticism that doesn’t “take a play on its own terms.” They’re talking about the kind of review in which you wonder if the writer’s tickets accidentally got switched — he was supposed to go see the remastered Ingmar Bergman film in Theater 4, but he ended up in Theater 3 seeing Avengers: Age of Ultron, and decided to write about it with the same tone and criteria. It’s an aggravating phenomenon, but when I’m the one doing the writing, I sometimes find myself facing the question: How do you write about Age of Ultron? Or about King Kong, the new musical brought to Broadway by Global Creatures, a theatrically ambitious Australian production company that seems to be sneezing money, and which built its empire on arena shows propelled by eye-popping animatronics? “Commercial entertainments with true mass appeal, whether by Neil Simon or Andrew Lloyd Webber, are review-proof,” my colleague Frank Rich wrote in his 1994 farewell essay in the Times. “Who in the standing-room-only audience at The Phantom of the Opera this week either knows or cares what I wrote about it? Does anyone remember that I didn’t like Brighton Beach Memoirs or Agnes of God? Commercial shows that earn mixed or poor reviews can often survive if a producer is willing to do his job and promote it.” Money talks, and 20-foot-tall animatronic ape puppets walk.

Which is all to say: King Kong, the creature, is a truly marvelous feat — of design, of engineering, of choreography, of performers and operators and stage managers functioning at bomb-diffusion levels of precision — and King Kong, the show is, beyond its spectacle, generic. It’s an amped-up blockbuster with largely forgettable songs, many of them of the belt-and-inspire variety. It’s thunderous and technologically impressive, carefully calibrated to contemporary sensibilities (i.e., it’s hooked up to an IV of girl power), and as slick and shiny as an oil spill. As with, say, Space Mountain, the idea is just to go along for the ride.

Not that the show is willfully shallow. In fact, in a brochure handed to me outside the theater by the show’s press representatives, one of Kong’s lead producers, Carmen Pavlovic, writes about the resonances she found in the story while developing the production over the last ten years. She talks about the global recession, Harvey Weinstein, the environmental crisis, and xenophobia in both Australia and America. Brett Kavanaugh gets a mention. So do the immigrant children forcibly separated from their families. King Kong, it would seem, is about everything. But what stands out from Pavlovic’s essay are its title — “Why King Kong?” — and the sole pull quote. “Could he achieve a chest-beat without punching a hole through his own sternum?” it reads. “Could he pick up a girl and run with her?”

Every play needs a governing question, and these are the governing questions of King Kong. Of course, the show wants to be about ambition and morality — about fear and exploitation of the “other” and mankind’s tendency to merge discovery with destruction — and it kind of is, because those are the things the story of King Kong has always been about. But what it’s really about is a 2,000-pound puppet and our own desire, as hungry audiences, to see something totally freakin’ awesome.

Christiani Pitts as Ann Darrow. Photo: Matthew Murphy

So it’s an odd thing to experience live, because the parts of us that it’s appealing to are the same parts that its story calls into serious question. Kong’s morality tale — the excoriation of man’s heady, heartless commercializing instinct — makes sense on the page, and on-screen it somehow still feels separate enough from us that we can step back and examine its message. But in the theater, this King Kong aims to swallow us up, to immerse and intoxicate us in ways that would make the story’s very own fast-talking, power-hungry impresario, Carl Denham (Eric William Morris) go gaga.

God knows how many speakers there are in the Broadway Theatre right now, but Peter Hylenski’s booming sound design wraps all around us, and the central feature of Peter England’s set is a huge concave screen on which the show’s lush, painterly projections (also by England) are constantly unfolding with a kind of tractor-beam effect. We’re sucked towards the stage by shifting images of New York City’s rising 1930s skyscrapers, Skull Island’s craggy moonlit vistas, or — back stateside, when the captured Kong makes a break for it — the blurry neon rush of buildings and lights that creates a hyperdrive tunnel for the gigantic beast to gallop through. This is 3D theme-park ride stuff executed at the highest level — I kept waiting for my seat to rumble — and it all seems to have sprung from a producer’s eureka moment just like Carl’s line about the giant ape: “He’s not a film … I thought about it all wrong — he’s theater.”

It’s a clever line but it’s also a weird one, because Carl is indisputably the show’s villain. Sure, he’s confident and charismatic and peddles “wonder” as if he’s a Depression-era Willy Wonka (and in Roger Kirk’s Crayola-colored costumes, that’s what he looks like, too), but we know from the beginning that he, not the big monkey, is the monster. He’ll be the one that’s ready to abandon his film’s leading lady, Ann Darrow (Christiani Pitts), to the mercy of Skull Island’s reigning beast, until he figures out how to use both her and it to make a profit. He’ll be the one that keeps trying to shove Ann — here transfigured into a beacon of empowerment, a self-respecting aspiring actress who won’t “scream for the money” — into slinky dresses and fluttering, feminine boxes (“I know what you want from me,” she tells him in one of her character’s many efforts to exorcise the ghost of Fay Wray, “but I’m just not a damsel in distress”). He’ll be the one that eventually drops the charm and grabs Ann’s chin — classic villain move — sneering, “I can destroy you just as easily as I made you” (okay, fair, there’s definitely some Weinstein in there).

The cognitive dissonance surfaces in the sensation that King Kong aims to give us exactly the sense of wonder that the suave, avaricious Denham wants to cage and commercialize. Of course there’s no real-living-creature-in-distress at the center of the proceedings, but it still feels like we’ve been invited to the theater more to gawk at the beast than to mourn what we’ve done to him. A longer, more coherent arc for Ann — in which she really learns something about the cost of human ambition — might have helped to remedy this effect, but Pitts is singing her heart out as the kind of flat Strong Woman, with a very loud capital-S-capital-W, that’s been written by a group of really nervous, well-meaning men. Which means she doesn’t do much growing or changing: She’s just a bright-eyed badass all the way through, a character that has her few moments of weakness not because they actually make much sense coming from the practically perfect wonder-woman we’ve been introduced to, but because the plot requires them.

It’s great that Jack Thorne, who wrote King Kong’s book and lyrics, cuts the story’s goopy romantic subplot and puts Ann, solo, smack in the center. And it’s understandable that Marius de Vries and Eddie Perfect (who composed the show’s score and wrote its songs) give her plucky pop numbers like “Queen of New York” and mournful anthems like “Last of Our Kind” — where she sings to the chained Kong, “You play your part / And I’ll play mine / I am just a woman / They say that’s how I’m designed / Speak only when I’m asked / I pray that I’m the last / So brutally defined.” But the creators’ desperation to give us an Ann Darrow for 2018 has resulted in one that lacks nuance not in the direction of fainting weakness but in the direction of flawlessness. This Ann never screams. Instead she does her own roaring (because, you know, She Is Woman … !), and the pivotal scene in which Carl convinces her to roar in order to lure Kong into his clutches feels hopelessly contrived. She puts up a bit of a fight — “This is his island … Carl, we don’t belong here” — but all it takes to break down her resistance is for Carl to sprinkle the pixie dust of fame in the air. “I’m offering you unshakeable, remarkable stardom,” he croons in her ear, “Scream for being a star that shines brighter than any other … Scream for … all those who doubt you, look down on you, or make you feel cold or alone. I’m offering you your dreams, Ann Darrow.”

For this silliness to work, we’ve got to believe that this woman has enough of her own weakness, her own frustrated desire and cruel ambition, that she would let out that cry — without which, there is no second act. Without which, the magnificent, innocent beast survives. But Thorne hasn’t written a flawed, conflicted character, and director Drew McOnie isn’t having Pitts play one. Instead, she’s burdened with such fabulosity and uncomplicated integrity from the show’s very beginning that the plot-necessitated cracks in her glowing armor don’t seem real or deeply felt. She only messes up because the plot says she must. Meanwhile, the men behind the scenes keep bending over backwards to show us how totally awesome she is, and how totally awesome they are for knowing that a woman is capable of being totally awesome.

“You know what they say,” improvs Carl, vamping in front of the curtain as the theatrical spectacle he’s tried to mount surrounding Kong starts to come crashing to the ground. “Never work with children or … ” He doesn’t get “animals” out because a roar fills the theater, but again, the character is perhaps more right than he knows. All of the real power and poignancy to be found in King Kong belongs to that massive puppet (designed by Sonny Tilders) with his fourteen acrobatic onstage operators, his offstage team seated at their computers and even at a microphone (Jon Hoche provides Kong’s roars in real time, his voice run through filters and distortions and turned, in the moment, into a whole range of gorilla-esque grunts, grumbles, and of course, chest-thumping battlecries). The creature’s hulking face is amazingly expressive — every feature moves and the glossy black eyes are indeed, as Ann points out, deep with sadness. It is legitimately distressing to watch this incredible thing — circuits and carbon fiber and ropes and manpower though it be — caged and tormented during the show’s second act. It’s horrible to see him besieged by a laser light show of helicopter machine gun fire at the inevitable, top-of-the-Empire-State-Building climax. It hurts to watch him die.

What hurts in a different way is listening to the song that comes after his death. King Kong is bound and determined to check all the big Broadway musical boxes, which means that we get showgirls and dancing sailors and lots of nods to the magic of NYC — and we get a soaring, hopeful finish. Which just feels flat wrong. After Kong’s demise, as the sun rises gloriously in the background, Pitts has to sing a song called “Wonder,” with lots of lyrics like “Your grace showed me the way” and “I believed, and found my humanity” and “Can you feel the wonder?” Yes, yes we could, and then we killed it. “Wonder” feels like watching a group of people who scaled Everest and then blew it up sing about how much they learned along the way. Cool, I’m glad you found yourselves.

We’re supposed to be dazzled by King Kong — there’s a Giant Monkey vs. Giant Snake battle royale, for God’s sake! — but so much dazzle is almost necessarily blinding. It starts to obscure uncomfortable questions. Like, for instance, what can we make of such a blowout commercial endeavor that effectively condemns commercialism? Is putting this story onstage in a typhoon of living spectacle actually the completion of a strange Ouroboros, where the ideas at the heart of the narrative start to eat their own tails? How much progress does Ann Darrow, 2018 edition — her empowerment brought to us by a male creative team — actually represent? Is there anything truly new or spectacular going on apart from that puppet?

That puppet, though. I mean, the monkey’s amazing.

Theater Review: King Kong, Who’s There?