NEW YORK — If you’re of a mind to pay 150 bucks or more to see the best Thanksgiving Day Parade float ever, have I got a show for you!
Be warned, though: there are strings attached. And not just to the 2,000-pound beast made of steel and carbon fiber operated by a slew of puppeteers, whose roar rattles the rafters of the Broadway Theatre. Because when you are not marveling at the impressive engineering that’s gone into the evening’s star performance, you’ll have to subject yourself to what feel like the equally animatronic contributions of the writers and director-choreographer of Broadway’s new musical “King Kong.”
This dreary, Australian-bred concoction, staged by Drew McOnie, is theme-park Broadway at its most transparent. It’s a perfect example of how investor-driven producing entities now try to build musicals they think audiences desire — rather than what artists want to create. It’s theater born on a spreadsheet. Like the recent unveilings of “Pretty Woman” on Broadway and “Beetlelejuice” in Washington, “King Kong, ”which had its official opening Thursday night, comes across as two acts of desperate cannibalizing of bygone inspiration.
For good reason, the giant puppet — designed by Sonny Tilders — gets the final curtain call in “King Kong.” Over the course of 2½ hours, the musical identifies only three other essential characters: heartless showman Carl Denham (Eric William Morris); his insecure helper, Lumpy (Erik Lochtefeld) and most critically, down-on-her-luck actress Ann Darrow (Christiani Pitts). Inheriting the mantle of Fay Wray, Pitts befriends the ape after a harrowing meet-brute on Skull Island, and for the rest of the show, Ann battles with her conscience over the ethics of having acquired cheap fame by helping to trap King Kong and put him on exhibition in New York.
Pitts sings the bulk of the score, by “Beetlejuice’s” Eddie Perfect, along with Marius de Vries and five others. Her job here is impossible, as the songs vacate consciousness right after the notes are generated. The music otherwise merely services McOnie’s aggressive, thrusting choreography for an ensemble playing the various hunters, sailors and showgirls. Pitts, meanwhile, is left portraying a thankless second banana — sorry — to a machine.
The mechanics of “King Kong” often mimic those of a motion picture. Set and projection designer Peter England has overseen the installation of what seems a vast video screen, on which are depicted the backdrops for epic scenes such as the beast’s scaling of a Manhattan skyscraper. These devices, with their immense scale and jolting impact, feel as if they are intended to erase the impression of being at live theater, not enhance it. They are triumphs of the console, not the rehearsal room.
Make no mistake. King Kong is big and scary, with a fierce set of chompers, overdeveloped shoulders and hands that could crush SUVs. His effect on you is real. The expressive eyes, though, stamp him as more human than anyone else onstage. Ann tells him he looks sad; I’d say, it’s more like worried.
King Kong, music by Eddie Perfect and Marius de Vries; book by Jack Thorne. Directed and choreographed by Drew McOnie. Sets and projections, Peter England; creature design, Sonny Tilders; costumes, Roger Kirk; lighting, Peter Mumford; sound, Peter Hylenski; aerial movement, Gavin Robins; orchestrations, Christopher Jahnke. About 2½ hours. $89-$399. At Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway, New York. telecharge.com or 212-239-6200.