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Bob Goepfert Reviews "King Kong" On Broadway

Christiani Pitts as “Ann Darrow” and “King Kong”
Matthew Murphy
Christiani Pitts as “Ann Darrow” and “King Kong”";s:3:"u

NEW YORK CITY - It’s no secret that the star of the recently opened Broadway musical “King Kong” is a puppet. But oh, what a puppet. He’s 20 feet tall and weighs 2,000 pounds and has a roar that shakes the building.

When in the second act, the massive creature which is operated by 14 unobtrusive puppeteers pulls himself to full height, walks to the edge of the stage, leans out over the audience and bellows – it’s a chilling and memorable moment. Indeed, the giant Kong designed by Sonny Tildres and created by Global Creatures, is truly an experience that has to be seen to be believed.

I hasten to add – when I say “has to be seen” – it is in no way a recommendation to see the show. The effects are spectacular, but as theater the show is a complete mess.

As a theme park event “King Kong” offers many pleasures. Had the creators written a story that supports the visual splendor of the production it might be an unqualified success – at least to its targeted market. Not only is the King Kong puppet a spectacular achievement, his fight with a giant serpent is also exciting. And too, the rear projections that are used throughout the show are marvelous. The production costs were $35-million and you see where every penny went.

Sadly, all this technical wizardry is squandered by the creators who seem to think special effects can touch the heart as well as does an effective story well-told. Jack Thorne’s book has the same soulless quality as does his other Broadway show, “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.” Both shows rely on phenomenal lighting and sound designs to build tension, but without technology the proceedings are devoid of human emotion.

On the topic of emotion, a limit of the puppet Kong is he shows only two emotions – intense anger and a plaintiff sadness. However, it is still one more emotion than either of the two human leads can muster.

It is difficult to be critical of performers who create one-dimensional characters when they are written that way. Nonetheless, one would hope - and considering the cost of a Broadway ticket - even expect that an actor would at least bring some charisma to a role. If neither Christiani Pitts as Ann Darrow or Eric William Morris as Carl Denham accomplish that task, one can applaud their hard-working ethic.

This is especially true of Pitts, who gives a daredevil performance in her potentially dangerous scenes with Kong. She crawls on his giant back, is lifted in his huge paw and seems always at risk of being injured.

You also have to sympathize for her as the actor who is most burdened by a bad script. For some reason, the play wants to be about her character, rather than the relationship that exists between her and Kong. For a character to be a heroine of a show, she must be worthy of the audience caring about her.

Ann’s betrayal of Kong on Skull Island, shows her to be shallow, ambitious and lacking in compassion. Nothing in the second act gives her plausible redemption. Indeed, the creators lost an opportunity to make her a tragic figure by not having her character perish with Kong on top of the Empire State Building.

Morris is able to keep the greedy film producer Carl Denham from being completely evil. He does bad, cruel things and abuses his power over those who work for him, but Morris is able to keep from twirling a mustache in his portrayal. It’s always a sign of approval when the audience boos the bad guy at the curtain call as they did Morris.

The only actor to make something of nothing is Erik Lochtefeld who brings a sense of compassion and decency to the stock character of Lumpy. Though a stereotype figure, the dimwitted, kind and loyal assistant to Carl is a welcome figure in a show needing a human with some redeeming qualities.

Rarely does the play hold your interest when Kong is not on stage. The songs by Eddie Perfect are not only forgettable, they are often tedious. Indeed, it makes one fear about the spring arrival of “Beetlejuice,” another musical with songs by Perfect. The choreography and direction are by Drew McOnie, both of which are highly derivative.

The strangest thing about “King Kong” is that despite all the things that are wrong with the show, I would not insist it be ignored. It’s a curiosity which has its own fascinations and on some level offer vicarious pleasures not easily obtainable in other forms of entertainment. If you like dazzle, flash and theme parks – you might have a good time at “King Kong” on Broadway.

“King Kong,” at the Broadway Theatre. 1681 Broadway, New York City for an open run.

Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.