How to take on a one-ton gorilla? We sent both of our chief critics to “King Kong,” the $35 million, Australian-born musical that opened Thursday night at the Broadway Theater. Far from Skull Island and the wrath of Kong, they huddled to talk it out.
BEN BRANTLEY Hello, Jesse. Though I’m not in a playful mood this morning — having just seen the spirit-crushing “King Kong” — what if we begin this dialogue with a game? Imagine you are on the street, having just left the theater, and are asked by a television interviewer to describe your response in one word. Well?
JESSE GREEN It can’t be printed here, and I’m not even sure it’s one word. (It starts with “ape.”) So I guess I’ll go with “ugh.”
BRANTLEY I understand what you’re saying. Since screaming is such a big part of the show, mine would be “aaaaaaaaargh.”
GREEN We were hoping in reviewing this together that one of us might have something nicer to say than the other one does. But it looks like our opinions rhyme at least as well as most of the lyrics in the show.
BRANTLEY You mean like, “But this is not the end of me / ’Cause this beast is clemency”?
GREEN When I see a musical drawn from a work in another genre — in this case the 1933 movie and its novelization — one thing I look for is the added value. What is gained in bringing “King Kong” to the stage? Certainly not provocative or insightful songwriting. The score is a hodgepodge of soundtrack-style murk by Marius de Vries and a clutch of no-profile songs by Eddie Perfect, whose score for “Beetlejuice” is heading toward Broadway even as we speak. Did you think the music added anything?
BRANTLEY No, but I think you’re missing the point. The only reason for this “King Kong” to exist is its title character. So before we eviscerate the show, directed and choreographed by Drew McOnie, shall we briefly praise the animatronic ape (designed by Sonny Tilders)?
GREEN Sadly, I have mixed feelings about Kong himself. Certainly he is the most expressive performer onstage, what with the platoon of puppeteers and voice artists bringing him to life. Only they don’t quite get there. Even aside from his long-waisted baby body, there is something logy and jowly about him; he seems like Khrushchev on Thorazine.
BRANTLEY Yeah, I thought of a (barely) animated gargoyle from the Notre Dame cathedral. Disney casting agents, are you listening?
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GREEN The adapters of this “King Kong” seem to have two stories they wanted to tell. One is a morality tale about the evil of trapping a living being in a cheap entertainment scheme. To judge from my own misery in the audience, I’d say this is a theme they mastered.
BRANTLEY And the other theme, would that be the equation of ape in captivity with the oppression of women?
GREEN Yes. A feminist angle is attempted, not very convincingly. When the plucky farm girl Ann Darrow (Christiani Pitts) arrives in Manhattan intent on making it big in showbiz, it’s with an explicit streak of post-liberation consciousness. “At least I’m not some man’s property,” she sings in a song called “Queen of New York.”
BRANTLEY And when Kong — dragged from his native Skull Island to Depression-era New York by the cynical, selfish and typically male showman Carl Denham (Eric William Morris) — has escaped from the theater where he’s been put on exploitative display, she sings a battle hymn of sympathy to him. (“From birth we’ve both been playing a game we cannot win / We’ll never break the lock or ever leave the box the world has put us in.”)
GREEN A car wreck of clichés like that simply can’t put a feminist story across meaningfully. Or any story, really — and that’s a bigger problem than the bad score and sluggish 20-foot marionette. I find it hard to believe that the book is by Jack Thorne, who won a Tony Award last season for writing “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.”
BRANTLEY Yes, but as far as I can tell, the story — and the music and the gymnastic dancing — are basically just filler until Kong shows up again and looks noble and sorrowful and, occasionally (when Peter Mumford’s lighting is really low), menacing. Didn’t you sense the live performers knew they weren’t the main attraction?
GREEN Mr. McOnie certainly had them working frantically. During the musical numbers, which feel relentless, the ensemble comes off as a troupe of overstimulated mimes playing charades. But here’s my question for you: Was there anything, aside from Kong’s two or three expressions, you actually enjoyed?
BRANTLEY Not really. I kept hoping a higher camp factor might kick in. When poor Ann is taken to Kong’s lair, and makes quips about his housekeeping and bachelor ways, I longed for the reincarnation of Madeline Kahn, who made such blissful hay out of similar material in “Young Frankenstein.”
GREEN The camp here is all accidental. The Skull Island jungle looks like green spaghetti with phlegm balls. (The scenic and projection designer is Peter England.) But the oppressiveness of the music and the over-intensity of the staging never allow you to laugh at, and therefore enjoy, the ludicrousness of the story.
BRANTLEY Agreed. By the way, if you look at accounts of the Australian incarnation of five years ago, which had a book by Craig Lucas, it featured several more characters, including a love interest for Ann. In this version, there are effectively three central human characters: the agency-seeking Ann; the chauvinist, bad-mogul Carl; and (oh, dear) his put-upon, slow-witted, golden-hearted assistant, Lumpy (Erik Lochtefeld).
GREEN The bevy of previous authors discarded in the course of the musical’s development dodged a bullet here. But Mr. Lochtefeld actually manages to give a sincere and human-scale performance, even if most of what he has to say is maudlin hogwash.
BRANTLEY Yes, even the screams lacked eloquence. Fay Wray, the star of the original, is best remembered for her earsplitting howls of terror when she’s in the big guy’s clutches. But our intrepid Ann is incapable of screaming in fear. Instead, she roars, and that’s what attracts her soul mate Kong to her. Unfortunately, I didn’t hear a lot of Katy Perry power in Ms. Pitts’s scream.
GREEN Perhaps we are mistaken in applying arty standards to the cynical product of an ambitious entertainment company that made its name on animatronic arena shows. Character logic may not matter here as much as the intermission sales of the Kongopolitan (vodka, triple sec, cranberry juice and a splash of lime). I looked in vain for the Kong-branded Thorazine.
BRANTLEY Gee, Jesse, it’s enough to make even you long for a margarita, with Jimmy Buffett melodies on the side.
GREEN You are referring to “Escape to Margaritaville,” which until now was my musical theater low point of 2018. Jimmy, I take it all back.