Midway through the first act, King Kong made his first appearance in the new Broadway show bearing his name, and the audience just didn’t know how to deal with what they were seeing.
“Is that … is that … video?” asked my wife, Robin, trying to make sense of things.
“No,” I answered, “I think that’s actually on stage right now.”
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
My wife and I were enjoying a rare date night, and we’d gone to King Kong at the Broadway Theatre. Obviously, any story with Kong in it is going to need to have a gigantic ape — the promotional materials teased his appearance heavily. We were quite curious to see how they would pull this off.
The show starts from the top down. The first people we see are lowered into view from the ceiling, hanging on to the hooks of cranes. In the background, New York City is lurching into the sky, as work crews scramble around on high steel. It’s a showstopper of a moment right away, immediately hitting the audience with vertigo, and the musical works hard to keep you off balance after that.
We’re introduced to Ann Darrow, portrayed by Christiani Pitts, who quickly expresses a desire to be the “Queen of New York” in her introductory number. Pitts brings tremendous strength to Ann, and her running joke is that she is incapable of screaming in fear, only in rage and defiance.
But this is Depression-era New York after all. Ann finds herself down on her luck very quickly. That doesn’t stop her from being noticed by Carl Denham (Eric William Morris) who quickly establishes that to him, ambition is everything. He convinces Ann to join him on a voyage to make a movie, but won’t tell her where.
What follows is another showstopper of a moment as the stage transforms from the city of New York into the deck of a ship. The cast and crew do an excellent job of keeping the audience off balance by making the entire theater seem like it is bobbing up and down on the sea as it travels to Skull Island.
King Kong story variations
We know the beats of the story of King Kong already, so perhaps this is a good point to stop and note the differences. Jack Driscoll, the traditional romantic lead of King Kong, is excluded from the production. This is wise, as Ann is strong enough on her own to never need a rescuer. It also sets up a more powerful dynamic between not only Ann and the conniving Denham, but ultimately, King Kong himself.
Some elements of King Kong have not aged well. The tribespeople included in the original film are definitely part of this, and it’s difficult to watch them in the film now without wincing at the racist stereotypes woven into the story in that more insensitive time. Happily, the Broadway production leaves all of that aside. Ann, Denham and the crew must deal directly with the mystical Skull Island before facing King Kong.
Now it was time for King Kong to appear. He’s teased at first. You hear him coming. It feels like you’re the kid in the car in Jurassic Park, watching the glass of water vibrate with each step. Then you’re given glimpses. Eyes. Teeth. Roars reverberate. A massive hand. Paw?
Then King Kong springs into action. And nobody knew how to deal with what we saw.
How King Kong comes to life
We spoke with the cast and crew after the show about King Kong. It takes an entire team of people to operate him physically, although you barely notice them. They move so well together, and in sync with everyone else, that they disappear for the most part, and look like spiders or wraiths when they are in view. All in all, the King Kong “character” weighs around two tons, is operated by over a dozen highly trained people at any given time, and every single moment he is on stage he is a show stopper and and a half.
Many more people help bring him to life remotely, including his voice, his movements, and how he is transported from the stage to the top of the Empire State Building. Because yes, that scene happens. King Kong charges through the jungle, carrying Ann in one hand. He battles another giant beast and, later on, Denham and his crew.
Pitts is in a unique situation here, having to perform alongside what is essentially a giant ape, but she rises to the challenge admirably, always maintaining her presence. She not only holds her own with King Kong, but also establishes a rapport with him.
She is the key for believability here. If we don’t see that Ann believes that King Kong is real, then we won’t believe that King Kong is real. Without Pitts’ performance in these scenes, the entire show would not work.
King Kong is, as we know, captured by Denham and his crew and returned to New York. The city really has always been inextricably tied to the story mythology. Any souvenir shop around NYC will have a little Empire State Building with a King Kong on it, so it was wise to make New York integral to the show as well. The city’s name features prominently in the musical numbers, and many of the tried and true tropes about New York are tied into the story.
As the show races to its climax, it brings you even more show-stopping scenes including Kong’s escape from Denham and his inevitable scaling of the Empire State Building. But one scene in particular stands out for its simplicity in presentation, if not execution:
After his escape, Kong stands alone. He walks to the very edge of the stage and simply looms over the audience. It sent murmurs and nervous laughter trilling through the theater.
You may not want to bring very young kids, but the older set will be blown away by the show. If you have friends or family visiting and you want to make their very first Broadway experience memorable, this would be a good choice.
Like New York City itself, King Kong looms over you. It shows you that even though you might be familiar with a story, it can still thrill you, intimidate you, and ultimately fill you with wonder.