There are some shows that you can wait to see until your college friends come to town. There are others that you should see right away. King Kong is one of the latter and Broadway Spin‘s Juliet Mazer-Schmidt is here to tell you the 9 1/2 reasons why.
1. If you wait, someone (Ben Brantley, your cousin, your yoga buddy) is going to ruin it for you.
There is nothing subtle about the new tenant at the Shubert’s Broadway Theatre: King Kong is a staggering spectacle set to redefine “wonder” on a Broadway stage. You’ve never seen anything like this on the Great White Way, not even over at Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Kong Bookwriter Jack Thorne’s other project currently on Broadway). Curious as to what a $35 million-musical looks like? Kong lets it all hang out in full view of every seat in its 1,761-capacity kingdom – for a reasonable run time of 2:30. For context, that’s under half the length of Potter’s plays… and, in fact, half an hour shorter than Peter Jackson’s 2005 Kong film.
2. – And/ or it might go extinct.
If Kong isn’t a hit, it won’t be long for this world (a consequence of high operating costs) – and a $35-million flop isn’t exactly a strong candidate for revival. Because of its star’s specific needs – more particular than even those of Patti LuPone (no shade to Patti!), King Kong is less likely to tour – and impossible to recreate in small storefront houses or community centers. This puppet phenomenon is putting on a show at the corner of 53rd and Broadway, 8 times a week, NOW.
3. This is a King you gotta see to believe – and you WILL see him.
Nosebleed seats? Not to worry. Let’s talk about the 2,000-pound puppet in the room – the one that reduced this writer’s mid-show notes to:
Readers may recall War Horse, a stunning 2011 co-production between London’s National Theatre and Lincoln Center that breathed life into a series of human-run horse puppets devised by Cape Town-based Handspring Puppet Company, each operated by a 3-actor team divided into head, heart, and hind. (“Horse Hind”: a career aspiration never before imagined by MFA-bearing thespians with dreams of performing on the Great White Way.) King Kong ushers in the next phase of this movement.
An amazing combination of artistry and engineering, Broadway’s breakout Leading Ape comes from the game-changing minds and hands at Global Creatures, the Australian production company behind audacious arena tours including Walking with Dinosaurs and How to Train Your Dragon.
More machine than man, Kong’s 20-foot tall structure of steel, carbon fiber, inflatable airbags, high-pressure inflatable tubes, motors and hydraulics reigns the stage via 16 microprocessors and a rock star ensemble of 14 puppeteers referred to collectively as the “King’s Company” – rightfully awarded final bow come curtain call. There is a selflessness intrinsic to every King’s Company member’s performance – an actor making her Broadway debut in a black bodysuit as a “back foot,” for example – that contrasts movingly with her character’s dominating presence on-stage. (Fun Fact: two King’s Company regulars are women – a change-up from the initial all-male Melbourne cast.)
4. Peter England’s scenic and projection design are, hands down, *THE BEST* Broadway has ever seen.
Fans of projection work – in any industry: consider King Kong required viewing.
As a Kong audience member, you build (and later destroy) New York City, sail to Skull Island, run with the King, climb the Empire State Building – all while seated safely inside a Broadway theatre. A fusion of virtual-reality-based theme park ride, IMAX 3-D movie, and cutting-edge stagecraft, taking in Kong is a sensory smorgasbord with something for everyone.
Not so much a thrill-seeking theatre-goer? Fear not: channeling the Japanese influence in the bones of this puppet-based piece, England’s artistry balances action sequences with moments of “ma” (think: the time between hand claps) – opportunities to digest the drama and reset between courses of jaw-dropping majesty.
5. “Building the Boat” + “Setting Sail” = Best Sea-Quence in musical theatre (pardon the pun).
Sorry, Showboat, Last Ship, Treasure Island, Moby Dick, Anything Goes, Pinafore, Titanic… (you get the idea): King Kong’s creative team proves highly-skilled in stage magic beyond the monkey-business. Prepare to explore the open sea like never before – and without motion sickness.
6. Director/Choreographer Drew McOnie’s Opening Number will change the way you experience NYC construction – for the better.
For those in the balcony: not only are you in prime position to catch the King in his multi-story glory, you’re treated to an aerial view of McOnie’s clever stage pictures. Working in tandem with Peter England’s projections, McOnie creates cityscapes from human bodies and infuses industrial evolution with energy and extension sure to seep into your thoughts when facing future construction-based detours. (This writer’s advice: during your next traffic jam/subway delay/selfie-stick bearing tour group walking four-across Times Square sidewalks, take a deep breath…and remember Kong’s awesome “Prologue.”)
7. A special shout-out to the crying chorine in the second act (you’ll know it when you see it) – for providing a moment of #TRUTH to all who’ve ever worked anywhere in the theatre world: We FEEL you, girl.
8. Score & Music Producer Marius de Vries is a straight-up sonic wizard.
The Executive Music Producer on La La Land, whose past film creds include work on Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet and (the now Broadway-bound) Moulin Rouge!, this music man has worked with Björk, U2, Madonna, Bebel Gilberto, Rufus Wainwright, Josh Groban – a myriad of musical artists with undeniable theatre influences. His score on Kong is a carefully crafted concoction that nails each and every one of the show’s multiple climaxes.
9. This puppet-focused play comes with a side-order of P-A-R-T-A-Y.
Some strobe-heavy sequences backed by sick electronic beats will take you back to your first all-nighter dancing in a multi-level European discotheque. Never had one? No worries: this show will provide a bite-size tasting menu – sans surprise foam or sweaty ravers.
+ 1/2. “We Can Never Go Baaaaack to Before”: King Kong is a turning point for Broadway Musicals.
From a former ballerina, three words: animatronic puppet ballet.
Look closely and you’ll see some spectacular “dream ballet” sequences in King Kong: a dozen-plus dancers in the darkness, operating a one-ton primate with precision, polish and strength. Listen closely and Christiani Pitts will move you with a “Full Moon Lullaby.” But, at this breaking dawn of Kong’s era, machinery frequently – intentionally – eclipses human performance: attendees knowingly pay to see puppets engineered to emote, projections perfected to create a feeling of motion.
King Kong does not deliver musical theatre’s more traditional experience of emotional catharsis shared by an audience sitting in the darkness – like in, say, Ragtime (or, as a more modern example, Come From Away). It does, however, expand ideas of what “going to a Broadway musical” can mean: this is a show not just for Broadway geeks, but also for techies and thrill-seekers – whether into theatre or not. In the way Andrew Lloyd Webber’s School of Rock inspired kids to pick-up rock instruments, King Kong carries the potential to grow the next generation of technicians and puppeteers – for the stage and beyond.
Parting Thoughts: While it seems unlikely King Kong’s brand of theatre will overthrow Broadway anytime soon, its raised bar of technical craftsmanship (and capitalization!) is likely here to stay. There’s a new theatre kid on the block: he’s big and complicated – and you’re gonna want to see him for yourself ASAP.
Juliet Mazer-Schmidt is a Detroit-born performer, turned DC-based litigator, turned Chicago-based theatre developer – turned NYC-based all-of-the-above… and in case it’s not obvious, she is also a writer.