Show me the monkey! That gargantuan gorilla in “King Kong” is the top banana of the $35 million musical that opened Thursday night on Broadway. Too bad that most everything else wrapped around this animatronic marvel, onstage for just a quarter of the show, is such a mess.
The story, like the 1933 original film and several remakes (including one where the ape gives Jessica Lange a Drybar-worthy blowout), is essentially the tale of Girl Meets Chimp. As written by Jack Thorne, who won a Tony for the infinitely superior “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” this plot could fit on a postage stamp.
The setting is 1930s NYC, where plucky, wannabe actress Ann Darrow (Christiani Pitts) has come straight off her family’s farm to fulfill her “dream,” a word that recurs repeatedly. She’s nobody’s fool, but she’s desperate enough to join filmmaker Carl Denham (Eric William Morris) and his lackey, the kindhearted Lumpy (Erik Lochtefeld), on a ship bound for remote Skull Island, home to King Kong.
The supersize simian takes a shine to Ann, who repays him by aiding in his capture. Chained and bound, Kong’s shipped back to New York for exhibition. He breaks loose, and so does all hell.
In one of the show’s better strokes, Marius de Vries’ orchestrations underscore such key moments as Kong’s clash with a cobra set on making Ann its lunch. But those few, faint atmospheric touches are undone by Aussie songwriter Eddie Perfect’s mishmash of period pastiche, power ballads and rap, their knuckle-headed lyrics sticking out for all of the wrong reasons.
Director Drew McOnie has the dubious distinction of overseeing the overwrought, out-of-place choreography. The show is a study in mood disorder, careening from high drama to even higher camp, to graphic stylized violence and tacked-on, artificial uplift.
Acting is basically beside the point, but, as guided, both leads give shrill, one-note performances. The creators are so intent on making Ann the opposite of Fay Wray’s portrayal of a damsel in distress that she lacks the vulnerability that made the Ann-and-Kong love story click.
That leaves it to King Kong to step up. This big, badass beauty of a beast does it with soulful eyes and a rafter-rattling roar that helps him hold the audience in the palm of his giant hand — even with a distracting, luggage-rack-like thing on his back for Ann and the puppeteers to climb on.
Early on, as the ship departs New York Harbor, the scenery, stagecraft and video projections merge so beautifully, you think this show may lead to someplace special. Nope. “King Kong” is less fun than a barrel of monkeys.
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