First things first. The two-story, two-ton puppet star of the new musical adaptation of King Kong, which opened Thursday night on Broadway, is a fearsome marvel, certainly the most thrilling incarnation of the Eighth Wonder of the World since the lovesick brute who stomped and chomped through Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s original 1933 film. His entrance comes earlier than you might expect but, as always, none too soon. He arrives teeth first: We see his fangs in the dark, much higher up from the stage floor than seems reasonable and discomfitingly close to this production’s spitfire Ann Darrow (Christiani Pitts), who hangs tangled in the vines of Skull Island. He huffs and sniffs in the blackness, curious, his immensity looming behind those choppers. My eyes strained to separate ape from shadow. Surely he couldn’t be that big, could he? Then, the moment teased out with sweet Spielbergian sadism, the star emerges from the murk, a miracle of dread and wonder. Someone a few rows behind me actually gasped. He is that big.
So is his roar. That came a breath later, shaking the theater and clearing my sinuses.
And then, somehow, it got better. Aided by 14 puppeteers and cleverly immersive projection work, this Kong (designed by Sonny Tilders and “movement directed” by Gavin Robins) seizes his prize and tears through the jungle in a surge of outrageous momentum. If the roar rumbled the theater, the rampage seems to upend the world.
This production doesn’t just draw inspiration from elements of the ’33 Kong, or John Guillermin’s ’76 stab, or Peter Jackson’s ’05 embiggening, the rare movie that, at 187 minutes, makes the Broadway version of the same story look tight. No, this Kong also draws welcome inspiration from Jackson’s other go at the greatest of apes: The 3D King Kong attraction he whipped up for the Universal Studios tour. This could be called King Kong: The Musical: The Ride, and it’s everything that that promises, for good or ill. You know how you’ve never felt much when the sailors in previous Kongs meet dumb deaths at the paws of the prehistoric reptiles that they for some reason never think to film with their movie cameras? Here, my heart truly went out to a dude facing terror on Skull Island: imagine being Eric William Morris, who plays the film director Carl Denham, having to hang from a viny trellis and sing “Disaster is not the opposite of opportunity” in the moments after Kong has dazzled us. (He puts the song over, the trouper!)
The non-Kong elements of Kong are, of course, somewhat beside the point. Generally speaking, when the ape’s onstage, flirting with his new friend Ann or battling a sickly snake, King Kong rules. When he’s not, it’s a very occasionally inspired musical about a plucky star to be trying to make it in New York in the Depression. Director-choreographer Drew McOnie’s staging tends to clutter the production numbers—too many seamen and stevedores turning too many Newsies moves—and the unimaginative theater-rock songs tend to be titled for the plot points they dramatize. The nadir, for me, is “Pressure Up,” a tensely obvious shouter about pressure rising among the crew on the sea voyage to Skull Island. Why not just call it “Rising Action”? Or “Padding Before the Moment You’re Waiting For”?
More interesting—and much weirder—is the climactic number, a triumphant ballad called “The Wonder.” The ’33 Kong never finds a moment to consider what Fay Wray’s Ann Darrow makes of her ape experience: She’s been abducted, pawed at, hauled atop the Empire State Building, and at last made a witness to a harrowing gorillacide. Here, after Kong has plummeted to his death, she belts for the rafters about how all this has taught her to savor life, or something. But even as I rolled my eyes, I rolled with it, somewhat, as Pitts is a wonder herself, a rawly funny actor with a five-alarm voice, a presence as possessed of grit as she is of glamour. The song might be an off-the-rack show tune, but she kills it just as thoroughly as Kong earlier killed the toothy white cobra who had the chutzpah to slink her way.
That’s one of many examples of the show’s uncertain tone. The puppeteers achieve striking emotional effects, especially with their ape’s eyes, during several tender tête-à-têtes between Kong and Pitts’ Darrow, who in this version comes to see something of herself in the chained beast. But then the staging of the Empire State Building showdown—all lasers and gunshots and chest-beating roars—is so spectacular that when Kong at last died, the crowd I saw this with applauded. There’s no room in the wonder for feeling.
One other element of this Kong fascinates. The project of adapting or revisiting pulp-era genre material for our age demands a revisionist spirit, a willingness to interrogate or chuck out the nastiest assumptions of the past. (Witness the work that Victor LaValle, Matt Ruff, and many makers of board and roleplaying games have done reclaiming the mythos of that batty racist H.P. Lovecraft.) The creators of this Kong are never subtle about this. As in the ’33 Kong, Carl Denham beseeches his leading lady to scream, but rather than a Fay Wray shriek, Pitts offers a warrior’s cry—one that echoes Kong’s. Denham’s insistence that this is a story of beauty and the beast here gets presented as a cynical showman’s hokum rather than some fairy-tale insight. Some choices baffle: In this version (spoiler!), it’s not paparazzi flashbulbs that set Kong to break his bonds and pulverize Manhattan. Instead, it’s Darrow herself, who seems to think she’s in Free Willy rather than a show about a beast who eats people. To justify that choice, Darrow sings that she, a black woman, also yearns “to break these chains,” a boldly suggestive lyric that could set off a thousand think pieces.
But one decision is welcome. Cut entirely from the show are the Skull Island natives, their ceremonial betrothals of young women to the apparently insatiable Kong, that business of them kidnapping the first Western woman they’ve ever seen, the entire sequence of Darrow bound up as sacrifice for the dark denizens of some othered place. That King Kong subtext of imperiled whiteness? It’s just gone—and good riddance. As they sing on Broadway, sometimes you have to let it go.