While I appreciate it as a landmark in both film making and scoring, I've otherwise never much understood the appeal of King Kong.
Sure, there's incredibly cool stop-motion animation and over-the-top Max Steiner aural grooviness, both of which are even more admirable since this is 1933 we're talking about. But otherwise, the movie has always seemed strongest as a genuinely depressing racist allegory, garnished with enormous doses of sexism and greed. The plot itself is hogwash: mercenary film director Carl Denham takes wannabe starlet Ann Darrow to the mysterious Skull Island to film a picture. There, they encounter deeply offensive "native" stereotypes, some prehistoric creatures, and the titular ape, who lusts after and kidnaps Ann. She screams endlessly, gets rescued, and then Kong is drugged and brought back to New York for Denham to put on display. In New York, the ape completely loses his shit, destroys large amounts of Manhattan, recaptures Ann, climbs the Empire State Building with her, and then gets shot down, surely crushing many innocent onlookers as he plummets to his death. In the film's final moments, Denham, who started all the mayhem in the first place, gets all faux-philosophical but reveals he's totally incapable of self-reflection or personal growth: he blames everything on Ann with a famous last line that makes no sense considering everything that's just happened. Come on, Carl, you dumbass: beauty didn't do shit. You
Special effects seem to dominate all remakes of the film; they are, I suppose, the point of revisiting King Kong
in the first place. An awful lot of people, it seems, will tolerate steaming mountains of racist, sexist crap if they get to watch enough shit blowing other shit up in the process.
Spectacle certainly dominates the stage version of King Kong
may not be the most well-balanced or wholly satisfying production, but is not without its pleasures and small victories. I appreciate the production for trying to rid the plot of at least some of its most offensive parts. Gone, in this iteration, are the grunting, monosyllabic, dark-skinned natives of Skull Island, and with them at least some of the stereotypes the movie played on. Gone too is the stupid line at the end about how beauty killed the beast. There's more of an attempt at moral trajectory: Denham (Eric William Morris, doing what he can), it's implied, will suffer economic ruin and isolation for his actions. Also, he doesn't blame everything on Ann; his famous "'tis beauty killed the beast" line is referenced in one of the show's exceptionally forgettable songs (songs are by Eddie Perfect; the persistent and weirdly porny electronic score is by Marius De Vries). But it no longer serves as the last line.
While the image of Kong being shackled and shipped far from his home will never not reference both the slave trade and the vilest of persistent racist tropes, some of the sting of the latter is offset in the production by Christiani Pitts, who plays Ann. Pitts is black, and thus not the traditional pale-blond, uber-Caucasian Ann of previous Kong
iterations (Fay Wray; Jessica Lange; Naomi Watts). The choice works to temper at least a few layers of racist assumption that can be inferred in what was previously an allegory about primal, predatory black men and their insatiable lust for pure, helpless white women; the musical tries instead to paint Ann as smart, independent and headstrong--a modern woman before her time. Her connection with Kong, it is suggested, becomes a knowing friendship between two lost, misunderstood, disenfranchised fellow travelers.
Any attempt to expose and excise stereotypes is noble, but in addressing King Kong
's problem areas as superficially as it does, the production opens up newer, bigger holes in a plot already full of them. Pitts does as much as any human can with the role as it's been rewritten, but hers is a thankless task. If Ann is now so insightful and level-headed and wise, what the hell convinced her that getting on a boat for months on end with a penny-ante director she talks with for five minutes in a diner is a good life choice? Yeah, sure, whatever, she's hungry and desperate for work. Get a fucking grip, all-male creative team: you can't have a modern, independent heroine who occasionally doubles as a shrieking damsel in distress. Pitts' Ann doesn't scream and play helpless as convincingly (or as endlessly) as Fay Wray did, but she is no more nuanced or developed a character, either: here, Ann bonds with Kong, then immediately sells him out, then feels remorse, then sings a song about how She Has Learned Something About Herself and Others. But what has she learned, exactly? That directors who hang out in diners are not to be trusted? That the world is cruel? That love is blind? That nature abhors a vacuum? That crime does not pay? Where's the build, the conflict, the cohesive story?
Anyway, whatever, story schmory; clearly, we're here to see spectacle. In this iteration, as in all iterations past, Kong is truly the star of the show, and while it's a shame he has to die, he at least gets the final bow here. The production's Kong is impressive: he's about the size of the stage and is operated by ten black-clad puppeteers who yank pulleys, manipulate the ape's body, and see to it that its hands and feet land correctly lest some poor cast member be crushed beneath its truly impressive weight. Another three dudes operate the facial expressions and the sounds Kong makes from a booth at the back of the theater. If you are solely interested in watching the puppet, and go to see King Kong
with no other expectations at all, I suspect you won't be disappointed.
But heat? Conflict? Tension? Emotion? Forget it. The show, like the film, left me cold. Oh, except for two moments: in one scene depicting Kong's captivity in New York, his facial expressions were so real and so sad that I felt genuine pity for the character, stuck as he was in yet another exploitative entertainment that didn't do him justice. There was a smaller, more profound moment, as well, during which one of the puppeteers took exceptional care in placing Kong's left hand on the floor of the stage. It was the gentle, lovingly tender act of someone who has bonded deeply with the character they're responsible for giving life to. It was beautiful and one of the sweetest moments in the show for me. If only the company had been able to figure out how to extend such genuine sentiment throughout the entire musical.