There are three listed stars in King Kong, Broadway’s extravagant new $35 million musical, but let’s be honest: No one is turning up to see Christiani Pitts, Eric William Morris, or Erik Lochtefeld, whoever they may be. They’re there for the 800-pound gorilla in the room.
Actually, he’s 2,000 pounds, and 20 feet tall, and he’s the only reason to see the show: He — it — is an arthritic puppet manipulated by clearly visible and undisguised heavy wires that allow him to lumber around a bit, change expressions marginally, and occasionally rise straight up, out of sight, to await the next laughably non-scary appearance. The monster bellows like Alec Baldwin when someone steals his parking spot and moves with the kind of alacrity associated with Abraham Lincoln in Disney’s Hall of Presidents.
When a giant anaconda comes to menace Kong on Skull Island, the two machine-marionettes move so slowly that it’s like watching a septuagenarian donnybrook, possibly over lox in Boca Raton. If one had clobbered the other over the head with a copy of AARP Magazine, it would have been scarier than what actually happens onstage. The anaconda has a chance to swallow, or at least squeeze to death, the struggling Depression-era actress Ann Darrow (Pitts) — who has been tricked into coming here from New York to film the world’s first nonfiction monster movie — but all the serpent does is lasciviously lick her backside. This scary monster is more like a super creep.
“What have we done?” cries Ann at the end of Act One. What indeed? At the intermission, lines at the bar were long: Brother, can you spare a drink? (The libation of the night is a “Kongopolitan.”) At several points in the show, if you can believe it, I detected a clearly sarcastic quality to the applause. I don’t think I’ve heard sarcastic applause since college, when I dropped a tray full of meatless baked ziti in the Branford dining hall.
I didn’t say K.K. was a good reason to attend King Kong, but the big gorilla is all there is to see. Pitts is soporifically bland, Morris (as the movie director turned P. T. Barnum wannabe Carl Denham) sings and acts with all the resonance of Pee Wee Herman, and Lochtefeld (as a shipmate named Lumpy who hangs around mooning at Ann) is irrelevant. As for the songs, composed by Marius de Vries with lyrics by Eddie Perfect, allow me to predict that “de Vries and Perfect” is not ever going to be a phrase you’ll hear discussed with awe around the cantina at the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame.
These guys need to get themselves to Skill Island. Their power ballads sound like tunes rejected for album-filler duty on a Celine Dion record. Several of these numbers hit female-empowerment themes and demand (in accordance with the dictates of 2018, not 1933) that the audience consider Ann something other than a damsel in distress. By my reckoning, however, if you are a woman who happens to find herself wearing a silky gown at the spire of the Empire State Building with a homicidal giant ape and nothing much to do except await help, that is pretty much the definition of a damsel in distress.
I’m not saying the show is hilariously bad camp. If only it were! No, this dismal, tepid, earnest affair, broken up by occasional dad jokes, is the guaranteed money-loser Bialystock and Bloom should have produced instead of Springtime for Hitler. At the climactic moment, when the simmerin’ simian has been brought back to New York in chains for exhibition and the impresario Denham has commanded Ann to take the stage and shriek on cue, she walks away from this sordid affair and sings a song to Kong, urging him to “fight back.” This is . . . not great advice. Ann’s analogue Marge Simpson had a much sounder suggestion to offer when she told the giant ape King Homer, “Maybe you should eat more vegetables and less people.”
In the big love ballad, Ann sings to the beast, “We’ll never break the lock or ever leave the box the world has put us in,” pleading about their mutual need to “break these chains.” Hang on a Kong-sized moment. Record scratch. The actress playing Ann is black. It’s the 1930s. Not that long after the Civil War. “Breaking chains” carries a lot of meaning when it’s a black person saying it.
So an actress asked to scream in a stage performance is being steered into something like slavery? And her singing about this to the big K amounts to a comparison of slavery, which actually happened, to the fictional enchainment of a fictional beast. I think I just wore out a fingernail scratching my head. Perfect — the person who came up with these lyrics is from Australia, as is the show. Australia is a long way away. Maybe the news about U.S. slavery hasn’t reached Australia yet?