KING KONG: 1933 Variations


The first 45 minutes were so engrossing that I didn’t care if the title character ever showed up.

Who’d expect that from KING KONG?

The best part of the new show at the Broadway Theatre is Jack Thorne’s book. While he’s taken a great deal from the legendary 1933 film — and some details from the 1976 lesser-regarded remake and the better-received 2005 reboot – Thorne emerges as the best of all in getting more out of Ann Darrow (Christiani Pitts) and Carl Denham (Eric William Morris). Into their intersected lives, the librettist has brought in different wrinkles, better drama and more emotion than you might expect.

A suitcase-carrying Ann arrives in Manhattan. She not only believes that she’ll be a Broadway star but also “Queen of New York” as she proclaims in her first big number.

Little does she know that in time she will indeed become a queen — but to a very unexpected king.

First come many fruitless auditions (where we hear one of the few songs that sounds right for the period). Ann is down, out, starving and homeless. The manager of a diner won’t even let her rest a few minutes in his greasy spoon.

Luckily, filmmaker Carl Denham is in the next booth. He’s endured a fruitless search for the right actress to star in his next picture. Ann, he decides, will do.

Because we understand Ann’s need to succeed and mourn her failure, we’ve already come to empathize with her. Now we like Carl for helping her and saying he’ll make her as famous as Vivienne Segal.

(Would you have ever expected that the name of the star of the first two PAL JOEY productions would show up in KING KONG?)

Ann boards Carl’s boat with reluctance, especially when she realizes that “I’m only here because I fit the dress” of the previous actress who’d bailed. Still, putting on the fancy clothes (Roger Kirk designed them) allows her to believe.

But why, when she appears on deck, does not even one of the sailors lust for her? Guess their rations contain tablespoons of saltpeter.

Thorne shows us the type of person Ann is when she meets a low-level crewman (Erik Lochtefeld) who tells her his name is Lumpy. “No, I won’t call you that,” she insists. “What’s your real name?” Now we like her even more.

Time for rehearsal. Carl asks Ann to scream as if scared stiff. She’s unable to convincingly – but as we know, in a while she’ll scream plenty.

Denham might scream first. He loses the crew’s faith and they’re ready to mutiny. Ann keeps that from happening in a novel way.

Don’t assume, however, that she’s falling in love with him any more than he’s falling in love with her. That’s quite different from all three previous KONGS where fair lady found someone to love. Here there’s no hint of romantic interest. These two are perfectly content to have a pragmatic business relationship. Each has a goal and never mind if the other’s is wildly different. They believe in you-scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours – but the back-scratching will never take place in bed.

Lovers of love-stories needn’t worry: KING KONG will indeed have a romance. It’ll just be between two mammals rather than human beings, that’s all.

In time, Thorne expertly makes Ann see the inherent beauty and – yes – goodness in Kong. Although the show is set in 1931, Ann is ahead of her time in caring about animals and animal rights. This becomes a bone of contention of dinosaur-length proportions when Carl simply wants to exploit “the monkey.”

Anyone who’s ever had a pet and fallen in love with it — and which of us has not? — will fully understand where Ann is coming from.

However, your own feelings for Kong may not be as ardent.

In the press, the creators have called him a “puppet” but “marionette” would be a more accurate term. Although the enormous Kong looks terrific, he’s held up by more strings than you’ll find in a symphony orchestra conducted by Pinocchio.

For a while, you may either pretend that you don’t see the wires or choose to ignore them. But you’ll probably only be able to think that way for a short time – because Kong is at all times surrounded by 10 puppeteers pulling the strings.

With their running and jumping around – and with no effort made at all to hide them — you’re always aware that they’re there. They could even be mistaken for poachers who got to Kong before Carl, enmeshed him in wires and are now trying to rein him in for their own lucrative purposes.

The puppeteers are dressed in black and wear hoodies to make them unobtrusive. But unlike the time-honored practice of bunraku, their faces aren’t masked. This may be a show that will be best appreciated from the last row of the balcony.

You might worry that those distant seats will cause you to miss Kong’s expressive eyes that have been much ballyhooed in the press. The emotions he does show with them are excellently rendered, but he has far fewer than Fanny Brice’s 32 expressions.

From the nape of Kong’s neck right down to his gluteus maximus is a steel ladder attached to his back – all so the puppeteers can climb upon him for added manipulation. They’re seldom required to do that, however, so the horizontal rods come across as a back brace. Does Skull Island have a resident veterinarian-chiropractor?

Kong is not the show’s only marionette. A prehistoric-looking sea serpent saunters on and regards Ann as his next entrée. Kong manages to kill him — pretty much out of view, perhaps in honor of the ancient Greek tradition of keeping violence offstage.

Given that the serpent is sickly green in color, the puppeteers manipulating it stand out even more, for they’re still dressed in black. Why not put them in green for this scene?

When Peter Pan flew with wires in 1954, audiences accepted this solution in those low-tech days. But 64 years and CGI films have raised our expectations. You’d assume by now that there’d be a way to make Kong self-sufficient. Either the show’s creators haven’t found one or they didn’t want to spend the money to make that happen. But if you must work Kong with wires and a staff of 10, maybe the show isn’t worth doing.

Thorne, though, does his best to make it engrossing, having Ann realize (as the 2005 screenwriters did, too) that The Best Defense Is a Good Offense. Rather than act scared, Ann chooses to be brave and tries reasoning with Kong. Here his eyes do show that he’s willing to give this strange creature time to express herself as well as the benefit of the doubt. So when the serpent arrives, we know that Kong kills it for her.

This is important, for later Ann will say to Carl “He saved my life!” She has a point and a reason to care about him – nay, love him.

Intermission comes right after Carl captures Kong. When Act Two begins, we’re back in New York. In the films, too, we are never privy to the journey where we’d have time to think how or what Kong was fed. Thorne addresses that issue, too, for he has Ann worriedly lament that “he hasn’t eaten.” Yes, she really cares for him.

Notice that I’ve solely been referring to KING KONG as “a show” and not “a musical.” Despite 24 songs and three reprises, the experience is closer to a play- with-music.

Ten of the “songs” are instrumentals. Others are fragments that stop just as they seem to start building momentum. There’s also a stretch devoid of music that’s so long that it even rivals the famous 32-minute songless section in 1776. If an original cast album is made, it may well be the shortest one since BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON weighed in at 28 minutes.

The credits say the score is by Marius de Vries and the songs by Eddie Perfect. Each has his name on 14 selections, while someone simply named “Justice” provides electronic sounds on nine. (Three other writers get a mention or two.)

Everything comes across as pop-rock acceptable. The three songs that Pitts gets in the first act aren’t as potent as the five that she gets in second. However, most of those sound the same.

There are some obvious places for songs that have escaped the creators. When Ann is having second thoughts about the mission, Carl gives an impassioned speech on all he plans to do for her. Why hasn’t this speech been set to music?

As good a job as Thorne does for Act One, he does run into proverbial second-act trouble. Although previous Carls have been content to simply show New York a shackled Kong, this Carl puts him in – believe it or not — a musical replete with chorus girls.

(One of them has a nervous breakdown that’s meant  to serve as comic relief.)

The unnamed musical tells all about Kong’s capture and shipment to New York. (One song does evoke a ‘30s sound.) But why would anyone build a musical around a character who doesn’t qualify as, to use that famous musical theater term, “a triple-threat”?

(In fact, is KING KONG the first musical to have a title character that never sings, dances or dispenses real dialogue? My guess is yes, but if you can think of another, do tell.)

Christiani Pitts certainly sings well and has great appeal as Ann. She knows Thorne has given her a fully developed character, and that’s who she’ll play to the hilt.

Eric William Morris is nicely brash, single-minded and unflappable – not unlike Mack as in MACK & MABEL. He’s got that roguish charm, too, and is welcome every time he steps on stage. Finally, he’s a much better actor than Robert Armstrong is in the original film. (Well, who wouldn’t be?)

At first, Erik Lochtefeld doesn’t seem to have much of a role as Lumpy, the poorly socialized grunt who becomes more awkward still when he meets beautiful Ann. Yet Thorne has allowed the character to grow. (“People are so desperate for success that they forget goodness.”) When Lochtefeld takes his final leave, the exit applause is the result of both dialogue and performance.

Director Drew McOnie knows how to build suspense, though, and teases us mercilessly before allowing Kong to make his first entrance (to great entrance applause, of course.) Remember the tension you felt while waiting for the chariot race to begin in BEN-HUR? You’ll experience the same oh-will-it-ever-happen feeling here.

McOnie must be commended for putting all this together and getting fine performances from his three human actors (none of the others much matter). His choreography, however, is truly terrible. He gives his ensemble a number of herky-jerky moves that have no relation to the way human beings walk or dance.

Did McOnie make the decision about the residents of Skull Island that Carl and Co. encounter once they arrive? Ensemble members are dressed in stringy green outfits. Are they natives? No, for Carl, Ann and all the others walk around them as if they don’t see them. Are they spirits who represent the island’s dangers? Only the staff of KING KONG knows for sure.

McOnie has been forced to deal with a musical theater practice that was pretty much abandoned a few decades ago: “in-ones,” meaning scenes played close to the lip of the stage and in front of a scrim so that scenery can unobtrusively be changed behind the curtain.

Over the years, we’ve been accustomed to scenery sauntering on seemingly on its own or with actors pushing it into place. That the in-one has a renaissance here isn’t surprising, for getting Kong in place can’t be an easy task for those ten laborers.

So it’s not the scenery that needs time, for scenic designer Peter England provides most of it through excellent black-and-white or sepia projections of a ‘30s New York. (One nifty detail: a billboard of a non-KONG film starring Fay Wray).

The long in-one near the end of the show whets our appetite for the Empire State Building scene. Alas, England doesn’t give us nearly enough of the building, but that must be because Kong – and his puppeteers — need plenty of stage space.

If you haven’t been bothered by them all show long, you might be now when one suddenly pops up in the sky while Kong and Ann try to discourage the helicopters’ gunfire. He flies through the air with the greatest of ease – but how can a guy float 102 stories above the ground?

And wouldn’t you know that not Lochtefeld, Morris, Pitts or even Kong gets the final curtain call? If you haven’t seen enough of the 10 puppeteers, you’re going to see them again.

So despite many assets in KING KONG, ‘twas the wires that killed the beast.