Call me naive, my taste insipid. I loved King Kong. It doesn’t surprise me that some critics glossed over the profound elements of the Broadway musical King Kong to arrive at insult. Ironically, that is one of the themes of the production directed and choreographed by Drew McOnie. Often, we dismiss what we don’t fully comprehend, for whatever reason.
The book of this powerful, heartfelt, and extraordinarily affecting musical is written by Jack Thorne. The songs by Eddie Perfect, with a score composed and produced by Marius de Vries, beautifully and powerfully reveal archetypal themes and rhythms that engage us on a deeply personal level. Indeed, the symbolism and overarching messages in the script and song lyrics serve as symbolic representations of a mythic story that resonates for us today.
The creators uplift the extraordinary, immutable wonder of life that we tragically mischaracterize and mishandle at our own peril. Anne Darrow (the superlatively voiced Christiani Pitts) discovers this sanctity during her interchanges with the magnificent and mythic Kong. (To interject, the work done to make Kong a living, sentient, feeling being is just extraordinary.) And though her realization happens too late to influence outer circumstances, on an inner level, Pitts’ Anne evolves. Gradually, she understands the magnitude of what has been lost and destroyed when they remove Kong from his habitat.
Pitts’ emotional and vocal range and the strong beauty of her voice amazes and stirs. Her revelations begin at the midpoint of the production after she meets Kong. And her veil-lifting, truth-realizing sequences contrast with the invidious view that empiricism brings the only “truths” worth knowing. Carl Denham, the antagonist, represents this materialistic view after he first sees Kong at the turning point of the production. The conflict between these perspectives can lead to only one conclusion.
Surely, one theme of this version of King Kong slyly reveals that such empiricism/materialism is a meretricious social value. Specifically, empiricism guides scientific cruelty (the attitude that animals have no feelings) and commercialism puts profits before people and other sentient beings. Glorifying materialism, the culture indoctrinates us in its nullifying success norms.
Both Carl Denham and Anne have been “educated.” Thus, they struggle like the other New Yorkers desperately hustling to make it to “the top” (“Prologue,” “Dance My Way to the Light,” “Queen of New York”). This cultural folkway of success oppresses their spirituality, goodness, and empathy.
Initially, Denham intends to use his artistic abilities to make a film of an incredible adventure that embraces the “wonder” of life. (He appears as a “knight in shining armor” willing to defend Anne against a sex predator lout who runs a bar.) Then in pursuit of the artistic dream, he devolves to the empiricist’s attitude of “seeing is believing,” and embraces commercialism whole hog. Superbly portrayed by Eric William Morris, Denham’s powerfully voiced, confident entrepreneur gone to rot is the perfect foil for Anne and Kong.
When Denham offers her a job, the desperate, starving Anne, who cannot compete for acting jobs in the rapacious city, accepts his intriguing offer of adventure. Denham appears to be a sincere artist willing to sacrifice and connive for his artistic dreams. He remains one step ahead of creditors and insurance companies. But we admire his pluck in risking everything for this shot at success.
Concurrently, we admire that Anne intends to “make it” without prostituting herself, literally and figuratively, by being beholden to a man. A maverick woman whose independence and will dominate, she will attain her goal to be famous by “doing it her way.”
These initial characterizations and the plot pay homage to the original 1933 film and to the Peter Jackson version of King Kong of 2005. But variations abound. Indeed, Thorne, Perfect, and de Vries have removed Anne’s love interest. Doing so shifts and modernizes the themes. The focus becomes Anne’s development and self-discovery as an individual.
Her journey also emphasizes her recognition of an important truth beyond the culture’s material, profit-motive values that promote self-destruction and the destruction of the natural world. Through Anne and Kong we live and empathize.
The stirring and engaging themes and the moral imperative of such ideas resonate with the audience throughout. Enlivened by thrilling music and athletic action and dance sequences, one stays on the edge of one’s seat. Indeed, the company had us from the first sounds of the overture and visual projections of the iron beams of the Empire State Building.
As Thorne develops the plot and characters, we see into their souls. A twist occurs when they sail to Skull Island (“Building the Boat/”Setting Sail”) and the extent of Denham’s tragic ambition manifests. Confronted by Captain Englehorn, who values his life and those of his crew, Denham no longer can obfuscate about their dangerous destination. The captain refuses to continue and the mutinous crew backs him. However, Anne bluffs them. With acting guile and an ambition equal to Denham’s she threatens to blow up the ship if they turn back.
Notably, this plot twist of a strong female confronting a herd of males works. Not only do Pitts, Morris, and the ensemble act with spot-on immediacy, Thorne has threaded the character development precisely. For in this scene we discover Anne’s rapacity is greater than Denham’s. This setup becomes all the more ironic and meaningful after she interacts with the divine-like Kong, and transforms (“Full Moon Lullaby”/”Shine”).
But Thorne carefully plants another note in her character: sensitivity. This trait abides in her relationship with Denham’s assistant Len (the excellent Erik Lochtefeld). She and Len form a bond which foreshadows the heartfelt communication she has with Kong. A character whom the world deems a “loser,” Len reveals kindness, sympathy, and humanity. Refreshingly, Len provides the counterbalance to Denham’s self-serving cupidity. And he puts Anne in touch with a part of herself that remains human and authentically kind.
After arriving on Skull Island, a mysterious land of otherworldly presences, Anne and Denham begin their filming. Anne screams. Intrigued, Kong emerges, terrifying with his roars. But as the sailors shoot at him, he grabs Anne and runs. Their escape through the jungle is an amazing light show with projections. It dazzles and terrifies. This artistry (animatronics, puppetry, stagecraft) realizes Kong’s panic and frenzy, and Anne’s horror. With the added commanding music, the exciting sequence is unforgettable. For the first time King Kong has emerged. And he takes our breath away. For Denham, Len, Anne, and the others, Kong’s presence blinds. What direction the characters will move in after this moment (toward vision or darkness) will be revealed by the conclusion.
The projections used when the crew lands on Skull Island become the appropriate lead-in to the presentation of Kong. The majestic creature in all his ferocious sentience truly is a work of genius and love. Kong’s reality is what the audience comes to see. With the story spiraling from the past into present-day issues and themes, this most empathetic, intelligent being is readily identifiable. For that alone, the production wins. Indeed, Kong’s iconic presence symbolizes all that remains beautiful, ineffable, incredible about the natural world. That humankind’s craven lust to own and capitalize what can never be possessed remains human nature’s tragic flaw.
Each mind-blowing projection works beautifully to create atmosphere and tension. The artwork and lighting also underscore the themes. For example, in the opening scenes the projections, along with the superbly choreographed dance numbers, help to create the energetic buzzing of the city and the frenetic vitality of desperate New Yorkers. They simulate emotional fervor to a very great degree. The boat building and sailing sequence astounds. You feel the rhythm of the undulating waves. Kong’s run through the forest clutching the terrorized Anne thrills. Particularly memorable, the artistic designers’ evocation of Skull Island’s spiritual mystique through projections, glowing vines, costumes, dance movement, and light beams proves to be a visual stunner.
The sight of Kong leads to devastation. To Denham Kong represents a dream come true. Taken in by the ape’s awe-inspiring presence Denham’s ambition moves past film to live theater, prompted by his assistant Len. Len’s empirical comment, “seeing is believing,” provokes Denham’s wrong-headed, soul-crushing exploitation. His plan to benignly film then leave the extraordinary creature unmolested implodes when the film he did shoot becomes unusable.
As the weak often do when they intend to use others for their own agendas, they rationalize. Morris’s portrayal of Denham rings with authenticity as he justifies his noxious behavior in the songs “The World” and “It’s Man.” With Kong he will “change the world.” His pride is laughable, his dismissal of the truth of Kong a willful turning away into soul darkness.
With his artistic fervor dissipating, Denham shifts focus. He demeans his once expressed sacred wonder of life. Instead, he will exhibit Kong in a freak show with the ape as the star. The characterizations of Denham and Anne are pulled in opposite directions by the conclusion. For as Denham makes plans to kidnap and commercialize Kong, Anne forms a bond of communication with him, which she denotes as a miracle that changes her. The two humans’ divergent choices inform the conflicts that explode between them right up to the conclusion.
With the brilliantly suggestive portrayal of Kong’s sentience, Anne and the puppeteers mesmerize us and break our hearts. This is especially so in the scenes they have together and especially toward the end. Because Kong’s intelligence sparks a life-changing revelation, Anne discovers her own core. But can she maintain this understanding to help free herself and Kong from Denham’s grasp in New York City?
For his part Denham devolves from venerating wonder to mistakenly thinking he can own it, control it, capitalize it. His humanity caves as cupidity and arrogance overthrow his better nature. By the time he bullies and extorts Anne to trick Kong with an alluring scream as she did on the island, he has already harmed himself. When he shatters his life-giving vision of capturing wonder through art, his ending ignites, and throughout the second act we watch him deterioration into misery and a state worse than when he began the adventure.
By the conclusion, Anne understands her own corrupted nature. And she seeks to be free of it. Ironically, Kong has inspired her to achieve this, but it is too late for both of them (“The Wonder”). His freedom will result in a sanctified death – he dies unchained and on his own terms. As for Anne, she will have to live with the memories of what she has done, what she has learned.
The spectacle-filled ending leaves us with questions. Where do we stand? In acknowledging life’s beauties, do we accept that the natural world’s magical thrumming must be venerated and safeguarded? Can we escape the genocidal impulse to colonize and wantonly eradicate what we don’t really understand, which includes ourselves and our habitats?
Thorne, Perfect, de Vries, and McOnie elevate this cautionary tale so that it sends its siren call from the past into a theatrical iteration of today’s currency. I enjoyed the script enhancements and profound themes echoed through Perfect’s lyrics and de Vries’ exhilarating and commanding music. The creative team realizes the mythology of King Kong as an evocative, representational phantasmagoria. Their approach parallels the original film’s setting with our time but doesn’t authenticate it.
And de Vries’ musical score is varied: lyrical, sonorous, dynamic, thrilling, and multi-genre, with pop, rock, and more. Perfect and de Vries meld the songs and dance numbers to the arc of the updated story development. Coupled with the magnificent puppetry/animatronics, the production hits it out of the park and the ball is still flying into the heavens.
I cannot say enough for the incredible artistry it took to bring all these elements together. Much praise goes to everyone involved. King Kong is at the Broadway Theatre (1681 Broadway, NYC). Tickets are available online.