Joan Marcus
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November 08, 2018 at 10:00 PM EST

There’s a new leading man on Broadway — tall and impressive, with a towering presence and expressive eyes. He just happens to be a primate… and also a puppet.

The new King Kong musical, which opens Thursday at the Broadway Theatre, has taken a long journey to get to New York — not unlike the creature at the center of its story. The show’s lengthy development process spanned years and two different continents (its first stage run opened in Australia in 2013) and stretched into the 11th hour — a matinee was canceled last week so the production could make “final adjustments.” (This incarnation has a book by Harry Potter and the Cursed Child author Jack Thorne and songs from composer Eddie Perfect.) Would it be too on-the-nose to call it a gargantuan gamble? When your title star is a massive marionette, maybe not.

The result is a Kong is like nothing you’ve ever seen on stage. The puppet is a 20-foot-tall marvel that weighs 2,000 pounds and requires a roster of actors to manipulate it: A group of puppeteers, clad in black, are on stage throughout the show, making him move in real time as the story unfolds (four additional Kong-ers manage more robotics from off stage). Watching them work is fascinating, and the result is an inanimate object that feels alive — his facial expressions, his movements, the chest beating, that roar. At the preview performance I attended, the audience went, well, wild for it.

If only the musical lived up to its star. Under direction by Drew McOnie (who also choreographs), none of the characters or songs are as compelling as the creature. The show, based on the 1932 novel that inspired the famed monster movie, follows Ann Darrow (A Bronx Tale’s Christiani Pitts), an aspiring actress who moves to 1930s New York from Midwestern nowhere with dreams of stardom that quickly crash down to harsh, hungry reality. A chance meeting with wannabe filmmaker Carl Denham (Eric William Morris, playing sleazy to full tilt) makes her the star of his next picture, and they set off on a ship for the mysterious Skull Island with Carl’s assistant Lumpy (Erik Locthefeld) and a suspicious crew. Three guesses what they find there, three guesses what they do with it. (If you’ve ever seen any homage to the creature climbing the Empire State Building, you know where this goes.)

Ann declares herself to be no damsel in distress, and resists Carl’s attempts to frame her as a frightened flower in his film and a pawn in his plan to capture and display the creature in New York. But she never comes off the page as a fully fledged character, and Carl and Lumpy feel even more rote. Perfect’s songs, too, lean toward easy melodies and rhymes, and none will stick with audience members after they leave the theater.

But it’s hard to be harsh on the humans when they’re not the main event — it’s Kong who gets the final bow at curtain call, and he deserves it. The show’s scenic design (from Peter England) uses screens to create the city streets and Skull Island foliage, and animates to portray Kong climbing jungle vines and city structures. At points, it appears he’s leaping in slow motion, and it’s cool (my notes, verbatim: “WTF”). In an earlier scene, pre-Kong, part of the stage lifts up to become the bow of the ship setting sail to find him, another moment more impressive than the song it’s part of.

In a moment before the end of Act 1, Carl realizes people won’t believe Kong exists unless they see him with their own eyes. “He’s not a film,” he declares. “I thought about it all wrong — he’s theatre.” It’s a meta moment, because he’s right: The Kong puppet is an impressive feat you’ll need to see for yourself. The rest of the show, though, doesn’t command that sort of attention.

Technical/puppetry grade: A
Musical’s grade: C

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