For our tenth anniversary trip, we had no plans for the night we arrived. Air travel being what it is, you never even know if you'll get to your destination on time. But we ended up touching down at LGA a little before 3, so we figured we'd go see a show. There were already some things we were thinking about for the next day, but something made me want to see King Kong. I knew that the reviews were meh, but the sheer spectacle of it was intriguing. There's also a part of me that reacts to the somewhat elitist negativity toward known IP like existing movies, anything from Disney or Harry Potter. It sounds weird coming from an alt rock fan, but I don't like the idea that popular things can't be genuine art. And frankly, I just wanted to see a 20-foot, 2,000-pound monkey for real.
This is yet another adaptation of the story everyone knows. In the spirit of our time, Ann Darrow is written as an independent, strong, African-American woman, which beats the classic scenario where she needs saving. Let's just get this out of the way... the writing isn't good. This is all the more surprising because it's the same guy who ran with J.K. Rowling's mind-blowing story for Harry Potter and The Cursed Child, which we saw a few days later. The songs are throw-away filler to a large degree, though they do serve the outstanding dance numbers. The characters are all flat and uninteresting archetypes with no decent dialog to work with. In the span of two hours, you get exactly what you expect: Ann goes from naive and hungry to regrettably famous, Carl Denham goes from nice guy to ego maniac and sideshow Lumpy goes from exploited to slightly less exploited. The performers are all top notch, what you would expect for a Broadway show (including the understudy we saw for Ann), but the show's entire soul is wrapped in the monkey.
That's not a horrible thing. The puppetry of the King is extraordinary, as orchestrated by I think 10 people on stage, and another 5 backstage controlling all of the facial movement and sounds by remote control. I've seen it all compared to a theme park experience, but the annoying thing about theme parks, and especially the Universal parks, is that everything has become a screen and 3D glasses. It's refreshing to see this enormous, physical thing in real space moving around. The love and craftsmanship that goes into the puppet and its performance is obvious and deep. For that reason, even though you know his end isn't good, the emotions he communicates by his facial expressions and sounds feels genuine. The price of admission is worth this spectacle to me, even if the storytelling is basic at best.
In fact, the production design in general is mostly brilliant. It's the first show I've ever really noticed how great the sound is (and wouldn't you know it, the second such show is Harry Potter). I knew we were in for a treat when I noticed the usual stack of speakers was accompanied by a stack of subwoofers. The scenery is dynamic and anchored with a curved video wall. One of the most effective scenes is on the boat, as it bobs up in down on the water with a moving platform and synchronized video. The jungle scenes are made to be a little more abstract.
When the visual effects are married with the monkey, the results are mostly good, but there were some poor choices there. While the effect of Kong climbing the Empire State Building was brilliant, they decided to do a very long, gratuitous running-through-New-York scene that goes on long enough to bring you out of the illusion. Similarly, a fight with a giant serpent moves too slow to feel right. That one was particularly odd, because he wins the fight in shadow, so I don't know why he sustains an injury in unintentional slow motion.
The net product is what I might describe as a really amazing theme park show with an extraordinary budget. I've heard they spent $35 million on this, which seems like a lot, but I also happen to know that Disney has spent as much as $10 million on a sing-along show, so it's all relative.
In a world where Love Never Dies (the biggest steaming pile of shit I've ever seen) can continue to tour and evolve, I feel like this show just needs a v2. It may never get it, given the empty seats already, but one can dream. What does it want to be? An homage to the classic film and classic song-and-dance musicals? A feminist or animal rights opus? The Muppets Take Manhattan? Donkey Kong? There's so much love in the puppet and production design, and the human actors have little to work with. But they could... they could rebuild the story so we cared about the three principal human characters. They aren't background filler because Kong is so spectacular, they're background because the story is so thin.
I enjoyed the show, but I was still disappointed that the story wasn't better.