**Spoilers ahead for the Broadway production of King Kong.
An unlikely adaptation, “King Kong” on Broadway is impressive, but perhaps not for the reasons one would expect. Although I have never seen the original movies, I had a basic understanding of the plot beforehand: Kong, a giant ape, is taken from Skull Island and brought to New York where he escapes his confines and causes destruction, all because of his love for a human woman. I was also aware of some of the criticism the plot had received in the past. The portrayal of Skull Island’s inhabitants is problematic, as are the racist implications of Kong himself. Not only this, the plot itself perpetuates the stereotype of the damsel in distress. While this did not inspire any enthusiasm in me, I am glad I kept an open mind. The musical was modernized in such a way that it was able to subvert some of these troubling themes.
Keeping the basis of the plot the same, the musical stars Christiani Pitts as Ann Darrow, a struggling actress in New York. She meets Carl Denham (Eric William Morris), an aspiring filmmaker who convinces her to join him on a voyage as the lead actress of a movie he is making. She agrees, and they embark on a journey to Skull Island, where Ann is taken by Kong. She bonds with the ape, but Carl later convinces Ann to trap him. They bring Kong back to New York to be an exhibit, but Ann has a change of heart and convinces Kong to fight back. He escapes with her, climbing the Empire State Building and eventually dying to protect her.
Subtle changes in the plot modernized the story in a clever way. First of all, by casting African-American actress Pitts as the lead of the musical, the idea of a delicate white woman taming a “beast” is ousted from the heart of the story. Secondly, Darrow is no longer a damsel in distress. This is made clear early in the musical, when she hits a man harassing her in a diner. She also saves Denham from certain death–his crew threatens to kill him when they learn they are headed to Skull Island. He thanks her, and attempts to bond with her by saying how like-minded the two of them are. She promptly reprimands him, pointing out the many hardships she has faced; she explains that she only saved him because he was her last chance at stardom. Smaller moments also point to the fitting renewal of the outdated plot. For example, the iconic image of King Kong hanging from the side of the Empire State Building while clutching Darrow is eliminated–she instead climbs up Kong’s back as he makes his escape. This clever revision serves to emphasize the fact that this heroine is now in charge of her own story.
This musical is also surprisingly relevant to the #MeToo movement. While the musical itself does not center on sexual harassment, it does touch on the fact that men often wield their power in damaging ways. Near the climax of the story, Ann asks Carl to return Kong to Skull Island. When he refuses, she threatens to tell people what he did. He dismisses and threatens her, telling her that he has all the power, and that he will ruin her if she speaks out. The lines sound shockingly similar to the words of the harassers that pervade nearly every industry today. But in the end, Ann fights back, sending a powerful message to the audience.
To me, the one fault of the performance was its use of the animatronic Kong. The set was chock-full of different scenery used to add detail to the setting. In fact, the performance itself to add dimension to the scenes, lifting and lowering the floor to create a more defined space. The clever use of background lighting also establishes the illusion of Kong’s size. While the lifelike puppet itself was impressive, its usage was not. During one scene of the performance, the puppet “runs” towards the audience while strange music blares in the background with lights flashing to create the illusion of movement. However, this functions only as a distraction from the plot. A similar sequence also occurs later in the musical, and it is similarly out of place, both tonally and visually. Not only this, the many puppeteers that occupied the stage and handled Kong distract from the story itself. Although the puppet looked alive, the puppeteers served as a reminder that it was most certainly not. This fault was only exacerbated by the large metal rungs that the puppeteers used to climb up and down the puppet.
Although this production had a few hiccups, it was overall a heartwarming, pensive, and timeless story. And its updated plot is surely worthy of an audience member’s time, especially for those who enjoy empowering retellings of classics.