Is Broadway’s Spectacular “King Kong” Fit for a Queen?

Whatever critiques of the musical you may have, the 20-foot creature is a powerful presence to observe.

Can something be spectacular and a bit off? Yes, the 2011 flop musical Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark proved that with its eye popping sets, bad songs, and uneven stagecraft. And now, King Kong—a lavish show that originated in Australia—mixes remarkable wizardry with musical theater imperfection, though it’s way better than most of the pretentious critics are letting on.

Based on the 1932 Delos W. Lovelace novel which preceded the classic movie of the following year, this is the tale of an actress, Ann Darrow, who comes to New York with stars in her eyes, hoping to become “the queen of New York”. (A title later co-opted by Roy Cohn, lol.) After going nowhere, Ann is pounced on by a savvy director, Carl Denham, who sweeps her along to shoot on Skull Island, where they meet her costar, the gorilla of her dreams. Ann and Kong irrevocably bond—somehow, he understands every word she’s saying and she gets every word he’s growling—and Kong even manages to save her ass when a giant serpent comes along. I mean another giant serpent; she already has to deal with the reptilian Carl. The oily auteur has Kong captured and brought back to New York for some more exploitation, and Ann has to decide between fame and decency, wondering how much beauty really loves the beast.

Joan Marcus

The show was written by Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) with a score by Marius de Vries and songs by Eddie Perfect, and direction-choreography by Drew McOnie. It’s enjoyable as Ann tries so desperately to make it, finally hooking up with Carl and apparently heading towards stardom. The sets and projections by Peter England are darkly splashy, though the score—a mix of Newsies, Tin Pan Alley, and Rihanna-esque sounds—doesn’t always soar and some dullness sets in before the ape appears. But then he does! (After a frustrating teaser scene, then a projected visual.)

The 20-foot creature has visible chains holding it up and technicians around it to work its movements, but it’s still a powerful presence to observe. He’s even more of an attraction in Act Two, when Ann rides him through the streets of New York in a thundering escape and he ends up atop the Empire State Building, where the view is great, but the future ain’t too bright.

(SPOILER ALERT: Pitts is lucky they have Kong falling backwards to his demise; she’d be crushed if he toppled the other way.)

The result might seem like a big PETA commercial crossed with a Radio City Music Hall Christmas extravaganza, with some feminist leanings thrown in, but when Kong crawls to the very tip of the stage, you have to admit to a marked pulse increase. There’s also a macabre but funny moment when a terrified dancing showgirl is dragged under the curtain by the big ape.

As Carl, Eric William Morris comes off even cheesier than he needs to, but Christiani Pitts is great as Ann, carrying the show with belting, dancing, emoting, and animal husbandry. Take this for what it is—a tourist-friendly spectacle with some memorable monkey business.

Michael Musto is the long running, award-winning entertainment journalist and TV commentator.
@mikeymusto