Woman and Simian Alike

Anyone complaining about the music in King Kong is missing the point.  Sure, there aren’t all that many songs, traditionally considered a handicap for a musical, and those that we do hear are all forgettable.  Sometimes they are even incomprehensible.  Why, for example, is Ann Darrow (Christiani Pitts), the beauty to Kong’s beast, asking us if we can “feel the wonder” right after—spoiler alert—our title character dies?  The Empire State Building has collapsed, New York City is burning to the ground, and Ann is curious if we’ve been taught to feel childlike awe again by a creature who has just this very moment fallen 1,200 feet to his death.  It makes for an underwhelming closing number, and one that hijacks any chance at pathos.

Furthermore, Jack Thomas (book) and Eddie Perfect (songs) push hard on their reading of Ann and Kong as kindred spirits rather than romantic partners: Kong is ogled and harassed by a greedy public eager for spectacle, Ann by creeps in diners and directors with questionable ethics.  “Anyone ever tell you you got sad eyes?” she asks him when they first meet.  It’s a reach, and one that is only pursued haphazardly throughout the musical.  The problems of a starving actress are not, after all, those of a two-ton gorilla.

But King Kong also features some of the most impressive stagecraft I have seen in years.  At twenty feet and two thousand pounds, Kong is massive, towering over the stage while still registering subtle fluctuations in emotion through his brow, his nose, his upper lip.  Of course, he roars, too, and thunderously so, but it’s the level of detail at such a large scale that is most breathtaking: at one point, he brought the audience to a reverent silence simply by walking to the edge of the stage.  King Kong also includes nods to its cinematic roots, employing a series of projections to bring the backgrounds to life and open the scale of the action across continents and through city streets; I’ll warrant that the final chase scene rivals any summer blockbuster or ride at Universal Studios.  Still, at its core, King Kong is quintessentially theatrical experience.  As Ann’s director, Carl Denham (a boisterous and delightful Eric William Morris), says, you have to see it to believe it.  And idiotic lyrics aside, I did feel the wonder.

King Kong runs through August 18 at the Broadway Theatre.  1681 Broadway  New York, NY.  2 hours 15 minutes.  One intermission.

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