King Kong at the Broadway Theatre
by Mo Brady
The first stage picture in the new Broadway musical King Kong is an empty stage with three ensemble actors dangling from ropes above. From that wonder-inspiring tableau, the beautiful and surprising visuals just keep coming, thanks to the production’s skilled and agile ensemble.
It would be hard not to have heard that this production features a 20-foot puppet as it’s titular gorilla, manipulated by onstage actors. Yet, seeing the puppet love in the flesh is a moment of true theatricality. Even as the audience watches wires control him and hears carabiners click, the puppet seems to move of its own accord.
Known as the King’s Company, these performers manipulate the immense puppet with remarkable skill and agility. Dangling from ropes and crouching in shadows, they move under, around and on top of the puppet to manipulate its movement. When Kong moves, it’s like watching two dances at the same time: the larger dance of the ten actors controlling Kong’s body and the smaller dance of three actors simultaneously creating a subtle dance across the puppet’s face.
Based on the production’s press, it’d be easy think that the only ensemble moments involve the Kong puppet. However, the show’s additional 10-member ensemble works just as athletically to create the world around Kong. Both the puppetry and more traditional choreography are credited to both Director/Choreographer Drew McOnie and Movement Director Gavin Robins.
Executing physical manifestations of a city under construction, their movement language is just as specific and grand as Kong himself. It’s no wonder that so many of these ensemble members are veterans of Hamilton, like Chloë S. Campbell and Eliza Ohman. The show’s choreographic language is pedestrian, yet stylized - reminiscent of Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreographic body of work.
While the production could have made the King’s Company and the ensemble into two separate casts, a number of impressive performers bounce from ensemble roles to puppetry throughout the show. A veteran of Ailey II, Gabriel Hyman moves majestically as both a puppeteer and a dancer. Peter Chursin’s sharp and exacting movements also make him stand out. And Casey Garvin makes a memorable turn as Fake Carl, bringing laughs to the show second act, even while lithely bounding across the stage.
For all of its jaw-dropping spectacle, the show does have problems. At two hours and 15 minutes, it’s still feels a little shaggy in parts. And while Christiani Pitts is working insanely hard as leading lady Ann Darrow, the emotional trajectory of her character doesn’t seem to add up to the sum of its parts. However, the visual spectacle of King Kong is undeniably remarkable. The way in which he scales the Empire State Building completely blew my mind. And every time he completes another jaw-dropping feat, the audience bursts into applause.