‘King Kong,’ directed by Drew McOnie, written by Jack Thorne, score Marius de Vries, songs Eddie Perfect (Joan Marcus)
According to the most “prestigious” of NYC critics,King Kong (at the Broadway Theatre) is a Duh, Duh, Duh Dud. Well, esteemed theater geniuses, not so fast. Your glib, “humorous,” self-serving, Kong pulverizations reflect more arrogant, Trumpian insult than notable explanation employing your professional expertise. How about delving into the profound themes and the superb integration of the book/lyrics and music?
Nah!!! Indeed, it seems some critics had more fun shredding the production than examining its excellence. Ah well…sucks for King Kong on Broadway? Hardly!
Call me naive, my taste insipid. But it doesn’t surprise that these folks glossed over the deeper elements of the production directed by Drew McOnie. This powerful, heartfelt and extraordinarily effected musical is written by Jack Thorne (of Harry Potter Broadway fame). And the songs by Eddie Perfect, score composed and produced by Marius de Vries beautifully, powerfully present archetypal themes and rhythms that engage us on a deeply personal level. Indeed, the symbolism and overarching messages in the script, song lyrics and characterizations serve as representations of a mythic story that resonates for us not only for today, but for all time and against colonialists everywhere. Prevalent throughout the production are mythic themes and symbolic archetypes that Jack Thorne the writer and Eddie Perfect and Marius de Vries (songs and score composer) uphold from other Kong versions.
Importantly, the creators uplift the extraordinary, immutable wonder of our lives and the natural world 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.
The Company of ‘King Kong,’ written by Jack Thorne, directed by Drew McOnie, score composed and produced by Marius de Vries, songs by Eddie Perfect (Matthew Murphy)
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 (the fine Eric William Morris) represents this materialistic view after he first sees Kong at the turning point of the production. The conflict between these individuals and their 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 promotes scientific cruelty (the attitude that animals have no feelings) and commercialism which puts profits before people and other sentient beings. Glorifying materialism, the culture indoctrinates us to internalize its nullifying success norms. And this internalization dissolves goodness, spirituality and the understanding of how all things in the natural world are connected on deeper levels that are unseen and cannot be typically measured.
Both Carl Denham and Anne have been “educated” to cultural success norms as we have all. They define themselves accordingly and are excessively ambitious. 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”). Sadly, they allow this cultural folkway of the “success identity” to undermine their spirituality, goodness, and empathy.
Christiani Pitts, Eric William Morris in ‘King Kong,’ directed by Drew McOnie (Matthew Murphy)
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 to support her. 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 in her characterization 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.
The Company, ‘King Kong’ written by Jack Thorne, score Marius de Vries, songs by Eddie Perfect, directed by Drew McOnie (Joan Marcus)
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 designs another note to 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 thrills. 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 and surreal about the natural world. That humankind’s craven lust to own and capitalize what can never be possessed is 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 hyper drive of the city and the frenetic vitality of desperate New Yorkers. All the artistic elements cohere to simulate emotional fervor and the rapacity that has influenced Anne. The boat building and sailing sequence astounds. Artisans have simulated the rhythm of the undulating waves. Kong’s run through the forest clutching the terrorized Anne excites. 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 projections foreshadow and intimate the fabulousness of Kong, himself. They also symbolize the magical and ethereal quality of our world which we do not see because we have lost our way in a meretricious culture.
The great irony of the visible/invisible, sight/blindness conflicts manifest when Kong, who is the last of his kind “appears,” and the humans do not understand nor appreciate what they are “seeing.” Humankind’s flawed, corrupted relationship to other animals (including themselves) and their habitats is a theme the reators suggest after Kong explodes of of the jungle. The creators also highlight the discriminatory and oppressive attitudes abuot indigenous peoples’ otherworldly perspectives and veneration for the “natural” world. The colonialistic/fascist attitudes are wantonly dismissive precisely because responsibility to understand and acknowledge sentience and intelligence inherent in the natural world would disqualify commercialism and exploitation.
The fascism of rendering invisible what is glorious, makes it ready game to enslave, exploit and commoditize. Thus, Denham’s and the others’ sight of Kong leads to devastation. The colonizers lack the inner vision to understand/value the mystical sanctity of what they see. To Denham Kong represents an entrepreneur’s dream come true, an answer which will move him from rags to riches. Taken in by the “ape’s” awe-inspiring presence, Denham’s ambition moves beyond 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, the 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 tragic. His dismissal of the truth of Kong is a willful turning away into soul darkness.
Thus, Denham shifts focus. He dismisses his artistic fervor and demeans his once expressed 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 and carry into the last song.
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 clutches in New York City?
For his part Denham devolves from mistakenly thinking he can own, control commoditize the ineffable. 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 his deterioration into misery and a state worse than when he began the adventure.
(L to R): Christiani Pitts, Eric William Morris, Erik Lochtfeld in ‘King Kong’ directed by Drew McOnie (Matthew Murphy)
By the conclusion, Anne understands her own corrupted, profane nature. And she seeks to be free of it by embracing Kong as sacred. Ironically, Kong has inspired her to seek soul freedom, but it is too late for both of them (“The Wonder”). He has sanctified Anne’s vision but tragically she cannot offer him anything in return but death. At least his freedom will result in a death he is worthy of – 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, who she has lost.
And thus, it remains. Kong’s story is of the loss of a world he once inhabited as he and it become extinct. Anne’s ultimate revelation is that her unworthy profane dreams led to the destruction of Kong’s sacredness.
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 honored 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 spin out the production’s siren call from the past into a theatrical iteration of today’s currency. I enjoyed the script enhancements and how the profound themes echoed through Perfect’s lyrics and de Vries’ exhilarating and commanding music. The creative team effects 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.
Specifically, the creators elevate the production so that one may appreciate it on many levels. As the wise cautionary tale Perfect’s lyrics, Jack Thorne’s script and Marius de Vries’ music warn what poet William Wordsworth indicts humanity for in his sonnet, “The world is too much with us.” At the conclusion of the sonnet, Wordsworth mourns the culture’s “being so out of tune” it cannot revel in the supernatural, mythic, magic of Nature. “Getting and spending, they lay waste their powers” and are blinded by their own acquisitiveness for things. Indeed, as a symbol of the sacred, Wordsworth would have appreciated the mythology of King Kong and understood the terrible and profound meaning of his destruction at the hands of people worshiping the Golden Calf and Mammon.
This theme especially reverberates against the backdrop of the self-dealing, self-serving White House administration, whose every whim seems to be how to enrich themselves and their businesses at the expense of our nation while making inconsequential the natural world and those whose ancestry most clearly appreciated their connection to the ineffability of Nature’s wonders (Indigenous peoples).
Finally, another word about de Vries’ musical score. It does not mimic the music of the thirties which would limit and distract from the production’s larger focus. Instead, the music hails from various genres (pop, rock, blues and more). Above all it transmutes the themes in its lyricism and dynamism and it aptly conveys the different moods in the scenes from being sonorous to thrilling. Perfect and de Vries cleverly 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.
Indeed, for good or ill many will see this show, not only tourists but New Yorkers. And for those stuffed shirts with turned up noses, just move past prejudice and pre-conceived notions about a gigantic ape musical. That, it is not, nor will it ever be, regardless of who attempts to demean it as such.
This brings me to the last points of this very long, praiseworthy review of King Kong. The savvy acerbity and self-congratulatory, pompous snark of some King Kong critics make a “blow-the-belt” reference to the producers’ exploitation of King Kong in the merchandising, as all Broadway shows are wont to do. Fine! But the critics who panned the show reveal their flaccid contempt to dun what may have more depth than what they dare acknowledge. This, is a key theme of the production which laughably they miss. Would they make King Kong an inane monstrosity of Broadway? Indeed, then they underestimate its sentience, intelligence, courage and heart.
Thus, if I find some slippery reviews of this show and “artistic” finger-pointing laughable in the reverse, then let that be my problem. For I enjoyed the production of King Kong. It is an intrepid undertaking for those making their business on the great White Way. I credit the producers for their audacity of hope and painstaking labors to get King Kong before a public who will appreciate their efforts.
I cannot say enough about 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.