By Rich Lynch: This January, as has been the case for most Januaries that Nicki and I have visited New York, there were several big-name actors and actresses who were appearing in Broadway shows. Bryan Cranston and Tatiana Maslany were the leads in a new stage adaptation of the Oscar-winning film Network. Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano were getting great reviews in a revival of Sam Shepard’s True West. Singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles and Tony Award-winning actor Gavin Creel had taken on leading roles in Waitress. And Jeff Daniels was starring in Aaron Sorkin’s stage adaption of To Kill a Mockingbird. But, in spite of their prominence, none of these luminaries were actually the biggest star on Broadway. That would be Kong.
King Kong is a recent addition to the Great White Way. Even though it’s very New York-centric, at least in its final act, it had originally been adapted for the stage back in 2013 in Melbourne, Australia. And it’s a musical!
To be frank, I was a bit skeptical going in that it would work very well. When you go to see a show about a literally larger-than-life stage character, you don’t do it because of the music. And while that was true even for Nicki and me, we still found that the songs, though not memorable, were good compositions which did move the plotline along.
But in the end, it was Kong that everybody came to see. And we weren’t disappointed. He didn’t make his initial appearance until about halfway through the first act of the show, and when he did he had his own talented assemblage of handlers – about a dozen people dressed all in black (listed in the show’s Playbill as the “King’s Company”) who were the manipulators. And they were so expert in their machinations of controlling a 20-foot tall puppet that it was able to exhibit a broad range of nuanced facial expressions and body language. Truly sophisticated.
And there was certainly considerable talent in the rest of the cast – in particular, Christiani Pitts (who played soother-of-the-savage-beast Ann Darrow), appeared to be a future Broadway superstar. As a review on Yelp! put it, she “sang her butt off” and from our viewpoint she was the only one in the cast who succeeded in not being upstaged by Kong. The professional reviewers, however, were not nearly as charitable, the worst of the lot being The New York Times, which described the show as “the Mess that Roared” and The Observer, which offered that “Broadway’s disastrous King Kong is a $35 million crime against puppets”. We, however, beg to disagree. When you go to see a Broadway musical, the one thing you don’t want to happen is to come away with a disappointing experience of an unmemorable production. That was certainly not the case for King Kong. It was a good show.
(This is part of a longer essay about New York that will be reprinted in December in My Back Pages 23.)