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'King Kong' review: You'll go ape for the spectacle, not the story

The beast has his hands full with Christiani

The beast has his hands full with Christiani Pitts as Ann Darrow in "King Kong," which opened Thursday at the Broadway Theatre. Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy

WHAT "King Kong"

WHERE Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway

INFO  Tickets, from $49, at telecharge.com, 212-239-6200

BOTTOM LINE It's all about the spectacle, as the 2,000-pound gorilla takes on Broadway.

You have to give them credit for recognizing the problem. Late in the second act of "King Kong," the musical that just opened at the Broadway Theatre, the leading man invokes W.C. Fields' warning about the dangers of working with children and animals. When that animal is a 2,000-pound gorilla, well, let’s just say it’s hard for the human actors to make much of an impression. 

As grand spectacle, "King Kong" is the real deal, the heart-stopping special effects beyond expectations. From the moment the imposing marionette first appears (35 minutes in, with the audience getting restless), he dominates and captivates, every fearsome roar (bravo to Jon Hoche, who voices Kong) drawing cheers. This is truly next-gen puppetry, as the actors known as the King Company, in ninja mode, breathe life into this hunk of steel and Fiberglas. 

But when Kong leaves the stage, so does the energy. Ever since an early version of this piece played in Melbourne, Australia, in 2013, the storytelling has been questioned. Producers went through several writers before settling on Jack Thorne, the man responsible for the pure magic that is "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child," to rework the book.

Thorne uses just the bare bones of the 1933 movie about a filmmaker who sets sail to a mystical island in search of a mystical monster, fledgling actress in tow. But he modernizes his heroine, doing away with the traditional ditsy blonde (Fay Wray in the original movie) to hit us over the head with the message that Ann Darrow is anything but a damsel in distress. Played with conviction and significant spunk by Christiani  Pitts, an African-American actress with a powerful voice, Ann becomes the focus of a story that’s not quite sure where to go. Thorne takes away the romance (in the film, Darrow falls for the ship's first mate), leaving her pretty much out there to deal with greedy, ambitious director Carl Denham (Eric William Morris, making the most of a character written to be despised) and his endearing assistant Lumpy (a sincere Erik Lochtefeld) — and of course Kong, with whom she develops an inexplicably instant bond that doesn’t totally make sense. 

Director-choreographer Drew McOnie and songwriters Eddie Perfect and Marius de Vries muddy the waters with numbers that seem out of place and are at times downright confusing. Only "The Wonder," when Ann sings about Kong giving her "an education in how to be free," has any real impact, and that's lost to some extent when the ensemble joins in with a strangely contemporary dance. 

Set and projection design by Peter England offers some splendid moments, notably the ship that materializes out of nowhere and rocks so realistically that anyone prone to motion sickness might want to take a Dramamine. But, yikes, the scene in which Denham works up a show to monetize the giant ape he has gassed, chained and shipped to New York, is blatantly cheesy (as if a muscle-bound hunk and a chorus line with feather fans could possibly make this work). 

Which brings us back to the spectacle of it all, because ultimately that will determine the fate of this musical. Is it enough for the audience to gasp at the sight of Kong climbing the Empire State Building with Ann clinging to his back? Or shriek in real horror as he charges the front row? It's impossible to know. I’ll leave it to the infinite wisdom of the 11-year-old sitting next to me. "It’s good," he told his mom. "And it’s not good." 

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