Chief Connecticut Critic
Connecticut Critics Circle/ACTA
Having read the New York Times review of “King Kong,” I found it to be utterly unwarranted and pretentious. In an effort to use my indignation productively (rather than writing angry letters which only seems to get me in trouble), I asked my fellow critic, Tim Leininger from the Journal Inquirer, to join me in a sit-down in response to Ben Brantley and Jesse Green’s “evisceration” of the $35 million Australian production that recently opened at the Broadway Theatre.
Kennedy: So, we saw the same performance as part of the American Theatre Critics Association conference while it was still in previews.
Leininger: Correct. Three things should be noted about this. One, the show was frozen at the time we saw it, so no other changes were going to be made. Two, we had the privilege of attending a panel with the creative team of “King Kong,” which gave us more insight into the show than most people would. Three, the conference is held in New York and apparently Ben Brantley and Jesse Green are too “busy” to attend the conference.
K: [makes surprised face, mouth wide open] You went there, didn’t you?
L: Yes. Yes, I did. Hell, they’re probably not even members.
K: I agree that meeting with the creative team and hearing their thoughts behind some of the choices they made with the book and the music helped a great deal to see “King Kong” for what it was intended: it’s supposed to be a cinematic experience and not a typical stage musical. I did not expect King Kong to be tap dancing.
L: Nor should anyone, it’s a twenty-foot puppet. It weighs 2,000 pounds!
K: So, let’s talk about some of their problems with the show. It seemed like they didn’t like ANYTHING about it, which is incredibly unfair.
L: To be fair, “King Kong” is not the second coming of “Gypsy.”
K: But it’s not “Carrie” either!
L: It’s not. I get the feeling they were going to hate this show before they even walked in the theater.
K: Right, Green wrote an article in the Times in September before “King Kong” even opened, talking about how he hated the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. So, safe to say, he certainly didn’t walk in to “King Kong” with an open mind.
L: I walked into “King Kong” with trepidation but I also walked in with an open mind.
K: Me too.
L: I knew the reviews from Australia weren’t raves, but that’s the evolution of a show when it goes from one place to another, it evolves and improves hopefully.
K: Yes, and I think that the creative team recognized that and made adjustments. For example, they changed the writer.
L: So, Brantley and Green didn’t like anything from the show including King Kong himself, comparing him to a gargoyle?
K: And Khrushchev. On Thorazine.
L: What did you think of the Great Ape?
K: I was surprised and impressed with how lifelike and emotive King Kong was. You don’t expect much from a puppet, and I think they were successful in making Kong into a real character, a performer in the show. And that was the point.
L: Yeah, it’s far more impressive than Olaf in “Frozen” which we saw the night before. Some of the scenes of Kong running were remarkably well done. You get a rush of adrenaline when you see him move so fluidly.
K: Agreed. I thought that the show was technically masterful. I really did.
L: The assembly of the ship? The way it bounces on the ocean? You really do feel like you’re on a ship.
K: Yaaassssss! The effects were amazing. I feel like spectacle added to the cinematic quality of the show. Same with the music. I think the NYT dudes did NOT understand the theory behind the music for the show.
L: Your use of cinematic is right on the money. The projection screen that wraps around upstage reminds me of a giant IMAX screen or what I imagine the Panavision screens were like back in the 1960s for films like “How the West Was Won.”
L: I’ll give credit to Brantley and Green, most of the music is forgettable.
K: I find that to be a problem with a LOT of musical theatre these days. Maybe that’s just me getting old and having no memory LOL.
L: In my review for the Journal Inquirer, I said that I really liked the songs that Ann Darrow (Christiani Pitts) sings to Kong. And Pitts sings those songs beautifully.
L: But the music feels more like a film score than a musical.
K: Agreed. Which is why I think the audience’s expectations may need to be guided in that direction, so they don’t expect a musical score like those you see in other shows. It doesn’t fit the same format. And we have the panel – honestly - to thank for that insight.
L: This does bring up a fair question that Brantley asks, “Why do we need a musical of ‘King Kong’?”
K: Well, hell, why do we need a musical of anything that has been done in another art form? Ask Disney! I say it is unfair of them to ask that question when half of Broadway is made up of adaptations from other mediums!
L: Yeah, people can just go and read the book that most plays and musical are based off of. Go see the original movie. Why go see “My Fair Lady” when we could see “Pygmalion”?
K: I have an answer for that. For that specific example. Lerner and Loewe took a classic play by George Bernard Shaw and created a musical that can be more accessible to those who might be wary of reading or seeing Shaw. That’s not true of Disney. And not really of “King Kong” either, except here, the book (by Jack Thorne) tries to put a new spin on the story of Kong and Ann Darrow.
L: Which is fair. A new perspective is not a bad thing here. “King Kong” was originally released in 1933 and some of the content would be rather offensive to contemporary audiences, particularly the depiction of the Skull Islanders.
K: Who sound like they should be a hockey team.
L: LOL. I don’t have a problem with an indigenous group on the island, but I do appreciate Thorne’s choice of omitted them completely.
K: But taking out the romantic interest for Ann I think hurts the story. While I can appreciate the feminist take on Ann – being a creator of her own destiny – I felt like something was missing from her character. Vulnerability! That was missing. She couldn’t be a strong, independent human without showing some weakness. I saw some tenderness in her interactions with King Kong, but for me, that wasn’t enough. I’m not sure why.
L: There’s a difference between caring for an animal and caring for another human being.
K: That’s true. Although I do love my cats more than most people.
L: Yes. They put in a moment where she gives food to a father and his starving child, but it was so brief, if you blinked you would’ve missed it. And we only saw it because the creators told us about the scene!
K: Exactly. I think a little romance could have gone a long way for this script.
L: Having Jack [Driscoll, the love interest in the original film] in the show would have put more emotional urgency in the first act and helped move along the plot in the beginning of the second act.
K: That’s true. There were times where it felt a bit stagnant.
L: But I do appreciate making Ann a bit more proactive. Green and Brantley erroneously talk about all of the screaming in the show when in fact, Ann roars a lot. That’s a part of her character as a form of communication toward Kong. Rarely does she actually do any kind of screaming.
K: Unless her director, Carl Denham (Eric William Morris), tells her to.
L: Which she’s reluctant to do!
K: So, I wonder why they chose to have a character like Lumpy (Erik Lochtefeld) instead of a Jack Driscoll?
L: I believe he was there to be a sounding board for the audience’s moral indignation toward the behavior of the other two characters and he only works that way to mild effect. He’s not a great character by any means.
L: So here’s something Green said about the ensemble. They come off as “a troupe of over-stimulated mimes playing charades.”
K: That’s not true! I thought the choreography (by director/ choreographer Drew McOnie) was well done. It had a period feel with a contemporary twist. It felt modern without being anachronistic. Now, if they had come to the panel discussion, they would’ve understood that the ensemble’s movements were the feelings and the architecture of the city.
L: The critiques we have aside, “King Kong” still holds the basic metaphor it’s held since its release in the 1930s: slavery and racism. Look what happens: King Kong is the symbol of slavery. Taken from his homeland by technologically-advanced white people, sent across the ocean by ship in chains, and put on display for money. And once he breaks free of these chains AKA Abolition is struck down again by the white oppressor. And of course, it should be noted that King Kong being a giant black ape is how white supremacists look at and treat People of Color, as if they were animals.
K: Which, these days, makes for a poignant reminder of the systemic racial problems in our current society. So, there’s a very good reason for the show to exist! To put it in less incendiary terms, as one of the creative team members said during the conference, Kong represents the Other that we don’t understand. So, maybe Brantley and Green just don’t understand?
L: Look, I can appreciate and respect them as critics. They have gotten to the zenith of the theater critic world. But once in a while, they need to come down and see theatre from a perspective other than their own. The audience we were with loved this show. They were in awe by the majesty and grandeur of this giant puppet and the scale and magnificence of the show’s design. It’s not a perfect show, but it doesn’t deserve the – to put it in their words – evisceration that they gave it.
K: Agreed. And unlike Green, this is NOT our low point of theater in 2018. In fact, this should be the contender for all the technical Tony Awards, hands down. That’s my prediction.
“King Kong” at the Broadway Theatre. Run time: 2 hours 30 minutes with one intermission. Written by Jack Thorne; Music by Marius de Vries, with songs by Eddie Perfect; Directed and choreographed by Drew McOnie. Starring Christiani Pitts, Eric William Morris, and Erik Lochtefeld.