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'King Kong': The beauty of the beast

Christiani Pitts plays Ann Darrow, the object of

Christiani Pitts plays Ann Darrow, the object of affection of Kong in the musical "King Kong," which opens Nov. 8 at the Broadway Theatre. Credit: Joan Marcus

The eyes are deep black, piercing, sad and, above all, a little frightening.

They belong to King Kong, the 2,000-pound, 20-foot-tall animatronic puppet about to do what he did in that iconic 1933 film — take over New York City. “It’s the most sophisticated marionette puppet ever made,” says Sonny Tilders, who designed the Fiberglas and steel puppet for Global Creatures, the Australian company that’s been working for nearly a decade and spending millions to get “King Kong” the musical on a New York stage.

Everyone connected with the project will acknowledge that it’s been a rough road to the Broadway Theatre, where the show opens Nov. 8. When the  show debuted in Melbourne in 2013, Kong the puppet got raves; “Kong” the musical … well, there were issues. The puppet, says Tilders, is clearly “the anchor of the story ... but the human interaction with him” needed some attention.

Enter Jack Thorne, the Tony Award-winning writer behind the magic of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” who took over from two highly respected playwrights — first Craig Lucas, then Marsha Norman. “It’s been harder than I anticipated,” says Thorne, noting he signed on only after he was convinced it was possible to “get a real truly emotional performance out of the gorilla.”

Girl meets gorilla

The story sticks closely to the original movie. A filmmaker, desperate for the next big thing (no news there), travels with young actress Ann Darrow (played by Christiani Pitts) to faraway Skull Island, where he captures the terrifying Kong and brings him back to New York. At first, says Thorne, he thought the biggest challenge for the stage version would be “creating an emotional relationship between Ann and Kong.” But in early previews, he came to understand that the gorilla wasn’t the issue. He’s been trimming and doing extensive rewrites during the previews, he explains, to make sure Ann, “who behaves very selfishly at a key moment in the play,” is a character “who people will want to go with on this journey.”

Thorne, who first saw the Kong puppet at a dress rehearsal at the end of September, recalls his initial impression: “He was everything I ever thought he would be and more … he’s extraordinary.” Won’t that spectacle be enough to lure the fickle Broadway audience? Perhaps, he says, but “that’s not why I did it. … I hope people get more from the show than that.”

Tilders couldn’t agree more. Audiences in Melbourne did love Kong, he says, but “I think they were a bit overwhelmed” with everything around him. “It’s a very busy show.” Now, he says, they are working on “homogenizing” a lot of the details to cut down on some of the noise and hyperactivity. “The challenge and joy of this type of puppetry,” he says, “is for you to believe the intention, the emotion ... otherwise it’s just a bit of technology.”

Oh, but what technology. Sitting in the mezzanine one early August afternoon just a few days after the puppet was assembled at the Broadway Theatre, Tilders runs through some of the details.

He creates puppets, he explains, “quite anatomically,” meaning Kong is built in layers, “quite similar to genuine anatomy.” Over the steel skeleton, the body shell is a mixture of hard Fiberglas, enforced inflatables (think bouncy castle), high-pressure inflatables (think a seaworthy dinghy) and bags full of styrene beans (think beanbag) that stretch and contort like muscles. “We really wanted to create the sense that he’s a moving sculpture,” says Tilders, creative director of Creature Technology Co., a spinoff of Global Creatures, which was responsible for making the massive beasts in arena shows like “Walking With Dinosaurs” and "How to Train Your Dragon.”

Kong's moving performance

Onstage, the dancers known as the King’s Company are warming up, preparing to learn a new move in which Kong appears to scoop up water in his massive paw. It is this crew that will give life to Kong, completely visible to the audience (similar to the puppeteers in “War Horse”) as they use a complex system of ropes, pulleys, cables and their own considerable power to manipulate every part of Kong’s body. “We’re embracing the idea that you see the puppeteers and they become part of Kong’s energy,” says Tilders, but they will be getting some help. Offstage on the tech deck, the “voodoo team” operates custom-made joysticks that control other movements, one of them the man who will give voice to Kong. The previews have not gone entirely smoothly. The show was stopped for 25 minutes one night when one of Kong’s air hoses malfunctioned, and there was a last-minute cancellation of the Oct. 31 matinee to allow for adjustments before the crucial weekend of press previews.

Once all this comes together, Kong will make all the moves we expect of him — running through New York City, jumping from building to building and climbing the Empire State Building with Ann Darrow on his back. Tilders says his team visited zoos to get a handle on the “kinds of expressions primates seem to have,” noting that Kong’s movements are “incredibly nuanced,” with around 50 of them — 16 around his face alone — from lifting an eyebrow to rotating a shoulder.

“He’s his own person,” says Rhaamell Burke-Missouri, who was a dance major at LIU Post in Brookville until last November, when he left to begin work on “King Kong.” He’s making his Broadway debut as a member of the King’s Company (he’s responsible for the right leg and arm), explaining that the group of 10 dancers is basically “the essence of Kong,” whom he fondly refers to as “the big guy.”

“I honestly didn’t know what to think,” Burke-Missouri says of his first sighting of Kong. Not knowing what to expect, he says he thought it might be an “obvious puppet ... or some guy in a suit.” But when he first saw him, he was captivated by, no shocker, those eyes. “They look into your soul," he says. “When you look at his face and hear his voice … you’re really blown away.” As is the audience, he notes. With their first glimpse of Kong, when all they see are his face and teeth, they “completely and utterly lose it.”

Which of course is what all involved are hoping for. Clearly, despite the best intentions of Thorne, along with Marius de Vries and Eddie Perfect, who are doing the score, all eyes will be on the 2,000-pound gorilla when the show opens on Broadway. But Tilders and Thorne believe the story will have to be as powerful as the great ape to end up with the kind of hit they imagine. There are reasons, says Tilders, that the story resonates, that make sense to do it in this day and age. “We do tend,” he says, a wistful note in his voice, “to destroy the things we love.”

He's the biggest thing to hit Broadway in years. Here are the stats on the animatronic star of "King Kong."

Height — At 20-feet-tall, the animatronic puppet towers over the stage at the Broadway Theatre, where the proscenium is only seven feet higher.

Weight — He's really the 2,000-pound gorilla in the room, though designers emphasize they kept him as light as possible to make movement doable.

Construction — His "skeleton" is made of a series of welded articulated steel frames; his body is shaped by Fiberglas forms and his skull and jaw constructed from lightweight carbon fiber shells. His arms and legs are built with high-pressure inflatable tubes.

Mechanics — Inside Kong you'll find 985 feet of electrical cable, 16 microprocessors and a liquid-cooled pump to control his hydraulic power.

Voice — One of three voodoo puppeteers who operate the remote control devices that control the puppet also voices Kong, though what you hear is digitally manipulated. When Kong roars, it promises to be terrifying.

— Barbara Schuler

WHAT "King Kong"

WHERE Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway

INFO From $49; 212-239-6200,

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