Friday, November 9, 2018

REVIEW: King Kong

Review of the Saturday, November 3 evening preview performance at the Broadway Theatre in New York City. Starring Christiani Pitts, Eric William Morris and Erik Lochtefeld. Written by Jack Thorne. Score Composed and Produced by Marius de Vries. Songs by Eddie Perfect. Scenic and Projection design by Peter England. Costume design by Roger Kirk. Lighting design by Peter Mumford. Sound design by Peter Hylenski. Creature design by Sonny Tilders. Direction and choreography by Drew McOnie. 2 hours, 30 minutes, including one intermission.

Grade: C

For sheer entertainment value, King Kong would get an A+ from me. It is exciting, thrilling, funny, and even a little scary. And that ape. Wow! Seriously, wow! It's like watching an old time action movie come to life.  And yet...

As a musical, it is both lacking and way too much. There's a ton of music (by Marius de Vries and Justice) scoring each scene, and it is played beautifully by the orchestra, but it is more than half of the score. And that means a lot of watching action scenes. The rest of songs (mostly by Eddie Perfect) range from pretty good - "Full Moon Lullaby" - to exciting - "Queen of New York - to obvious - "The World" to ill-conceived - "Last of Our Kind." Having a song called "Broadway Nightmare" is practically begging for an ugly remark.

Similarly, Jack Thorne's book - one pictures script pages full of description and stage direction - is both well-done and silly. He has nailed that popcorn adventure film tone of supercilious swagger of the 30's original, and the types - money-hungry movie maker with no soul, down on his luck simpleton who ends up being the moral compass of the piece - are appropriately drawn. (I was surprised the audience didn't boo-hiss the bad guy at the curtain call.) All of this would have been fine, had he not imposed a very in-your-face "woke" quality for the female lead. (She actually says yells, "I'm no damsel in distress!" more than once.) It might have been nice if she wasn't so painfully obvious in her "woke"ness - showing her power and strength more and telling us about it less. I can only imagine how great it would have been had she actually had an adversary worthy of a fight.

The bottom line is I found myself both laughing with it and laughing at it. That said, there's much to appreciate here. Roger Kirk's plentiful costumes are lovely, and Peter Mumford's extensive lighting adds to both the mood and the thrill of the piece. Kudos, too, to the sound design by Peter Hylenski, which manages to be both subtle and heart-pounding.

Director Drew McOnie creates some truly spectacular stage pictures. The entire opening sequence is thrilling - things come at you from all directions and the set pieces (by Peter England) are impressive. And the sequence where a ship materializes out of nowhere is applause-worthy (and the folks I shared this experience with gave it a big hand). But then there's projection designer Peter England, who creates some impressive visuals on a huge screen. But at many points, it is excessive - people who suffer from motion sickness could have problems (I'm not even kidding a little bit) - and as exciting as they are at first, they get a bit, well, tedious.

And there's choreographer Drew McOnie, who has some impressive skills, but suffers from the same excess. The opening sequence, as I said earlier was stunning, an extended dance that hearkens back to the title number in 42nd Street, with a good bit of On the Town and a smidge of West Side Story. Don't mistake this as a call-out for being "derivative." It's more a loving tribute. But the excess comes in with the copious amount of this same dancing throughout the rest of the show. Even Jerome Robbins knew he had to switch it up in the same show. And then there's the bizarre inclusion of very modern jazz dance that looks amazing on So You Think You Can Dance circa 2018, not so much in 1931 New York City. McOnie relies so much on this that it quickly moves from curious to self-indulgent to boring.

Christiani Pitts and Erik Lochtefeld
The cast is mostly excellent from top to bottom - their skill sets are impressive: actors/singers/dancers/acrobats/pup-peteers - and they are working their asses off. Best of all, they are all on the same page, which means they can sell this show despite its off-the-rails excesses and silliness. And they really seem to be enjoying the performance which in turn excites the audience. That's not a bad thing at all. Side note: "Fake Carl" Casey Garvin is a sexy riot.

Eric William Morris

There are only four main characters, and like the show itself, they are uneven and yet entertaining. There's Erik Lochtefeld who does everything he possible can in the thankless role of Lumpy, sidekick to the bad guy who ends up taking the high road. Bad guy Carl had a lot of potential - he starts out as a heroic figure who ends up selling his soul for the almighty buck. The writers missed a real chance here to make an interesting, complicated character with a great dramatic arc, with even some modern overtones. Instead, he comes off as either all good guy or all bad guy. Unfortunately, Eric William Morris is partially to blame; he never really rises to anything beyond a very surface portrayal.

Kong and Christiani Pitts

Thankfully, the other two leads are amazing. Christiani Pitts is charming right out of the gate, and she is sassy, smart and very strong. Her take on heroine Ann Darrow is a real role model for all the young women in the audience. She is fearless, too - I'd be terrified to be lifted, tossed around and strapped to a giant ape by a simple wire. Her powerful belt is impressive. But the most remarkable thing about her performance is that most of the time she's playing against a puppet. I look forward to seeing what she does next. Let's face it, though. The real attraction here is the spectacle of a two-story tall, two ton marionette. It is everything you'd expect and more.  The Playbill lists the King's Company and the Voodoo Operators - the men and women who manipulate and give voice to the creature (designed by Sonny Tilders), and they are remarkable.  Their finesse and agility (and brute strength) are artistry personified. Watching it move is truly jaw-dropping, and I'll admit that his facial expressions and soulful grunts really got to me. I was moved by Kong.

He and Ms. Pitts were so wonderful, I can even forgive the (literally) laughable serpent. Yikes.

(Photos by J. Kyler, J. Marcus, M. Murphy)


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