'King Kong' on Broadway: There’s a 2000-pound gorilla in the room

Christiani Pitts (right) and friend in "King Kong" on Broadway.

Wit and spectacle: a rare and surprising combo.

King Kong, the new musical that just arrived on Broadway, at the Broadway Theatre, is a knockout of a show, managing to move us to sympathy, scare us, and dazzle us with stagecraft all at once.  

To praise the show as a “musical” might be a slight exaggeration, since the songs (by Eddie Perfect and Marius de Vries) aren’t much good — neither tuneful nor interesting — and the singers and dancers are only adequate. Which leaves us with the star of the show, King Kong, a stunning example of “extreme puppetry,” which (I’m tempted to write who here, so real does Kong seem) does, in fact, weigh 2000 pounds. 

The book (written by Jack Thorne) follows the legendary movie plot: Ann Darrow (Christiani Pitts, a screamer par excellence) arrives in New York city from some farm where she has escaped from Pa, with plans to become “the Queen” of Broadway, only to be rejected in audition after audition. Curtain up on a backdrop  (designer Peter England) of the New York cityscape, including, if you look sharp, the marquee of the Broadway Theatre, announcing a new musical — the very theatre we are sitting in, watching a new musical.

Along comes ambitious, manipulative Carl Denham (Eric William Morris), who persuades Ann to join his expedition to Skull Island, where he will capture a gigantic gorilla and make a movie called King Kong with Ann as its star. What he discovers  is that Ann is “not a damsel in distress but a warrior.” Contemporary problem solved.

All proceeds as we know it must. An amazing serpent appears on the island and bites King Kong; Ann salves his wounds and makes friends. There is a hilarious meet-cute moment where they roar at each other, and another hilarious moment where Carl realizes it won’t work as a movie but will be great theater. See where this is going? The show winks at us again and again, as when the show-within-the-show is derailed by Kong and Carl announces to the audience that there are “technical difficulties” (as have reportedly plagued this actual Broadway show during previews). Wink.

Anyway, the fabulous stuff is in the thrilling sound design (Peter Hylenski), the lighting design (Peter Mumford), and the video projections (Artists in Motion) that make the boat at sea seem to be really moving. In the stunning climb up the Empire State Building, the attack of the airplanes will give all the designers a chance to work their  stage magic.

But the heart of the show is the creature itself, whose movements — his body, his hands, and most of all his eyes — are controlled by a combination of motorized elements and a crew of 14 who leap and scurry around him with ropes. The timing is breathtaking, since he holds Ann in his enormous hand, and after all, she is actually alive.  An amazing quantity of stage time is taken up with his teeth-bared roaring, but somehow that seems like worthwhile dialogue.  Near the end of Act 2, he stands (two stories high) and lumbers downstage, to the delight and terror of the people in the first rows.

I imagine that there will be those who scoff, but I had too much fun.

King Kong. The Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway at 53rd Street, New York.