So let’s cut to the chase. The monkey in this reported $35 million production is amazing, a 20-foot-tall hybrid of animatronics, puppetry and human performance. Fifteen puppeteers, mostly onstage, work the beast with ropes, poles and pulleys – a show in themselves as they slide down cables like ninjas. Each roar and growl is voiced by an effects-assisted offstage actor – Jon Hoche – giving the creature immediate, live responses.
Kong’s facial expressions – every teeth-baring show of force, each wary look of confused affection, moans of pain – are enchanting, and at least as convincing as any bit of CGI or stop-motion committed to film over the decades. When the beast finally raises itself up fully, leaning ever so threateningly over the first rows of the audience, the effect truly is chilling. Nervous laughter followed by applause was the response at the performance I attended.
Though Kong can be hoisted quickly up and out of sight to the fly space above the stage, his travels onstage – running, leaping, sometimes through jungle, sometimes Manhattan – are suggested by the puppet’s in-place movements and laser-sharp lights streaking by. Think the final scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The musical opens – 40 minutes or so before Kong makes his first appearance – in ’30s New York, nicely conveyed through film projections of the old city, as if the characters are visiting some black-and-white melodrama of the great, rising metropolis. The first image we get is of men descending on construction cranes, a steel jungle taking shape before our eyes.
Soon we meet Carl Denham (the terrific Eric William Morris), a P.T. Barnum meets Oz figure gathering a film crew for a mysterious project far away on Skull Island. After spotting and casting beautiful, feisty Ann Darrow (Pitts, fitting the role well), a breadline-walking, down on her luck actress, Denham & Co. hit the high seas.
King Kong doesn’t tinker with that basic outline, but crucial details have been changed for modern sensibilities. The stereotypical inhabitants of Skull Island are nowhere in sight, replaced by sentient flora that binds Ann for the big sacrifice. Why Denham doesn’t save himself and New York City a lot of trouble by re-potting a few of these creatures for transport isn’t addressed.
But the biggest change comes in Darrow herself. Pitts’ Ann, if she does say so herself, doesn’t do “damsel in distress.” Nor does she scream – she roars back, a reaction that comes off pretty silly, made even more so by some cartoony sound effects (Peter Hylenski’s sound design is, otherwise, loud and excellent).
The quick bond between Ann and Kong – she only seems truly terrified when that Mummenschanz snake comes calling – makes for a kid-friendly Disney princess-power approach, undercutting the fright. A best pal shipmate named Lumpy (Erik Lochtefeld) adds yet a further note of Jiminy Cricket sentimentality.
Unfortunately, the modernizing extends to the musical’s music. The songs by Eddie Perfect are mostly generic contemporary stage pop, with little hint of the ’30s-era setting. McOnie’s choreography tends toward energetic chorus numbers, and, as in the opening scenes of New Yorkers New Yorking, the dances are entertaining without being particularly notable.