As our story begins, we are introduced to our heroine Ann Darrow played by Christiani Pitts. Ann is a wide-eyed country girl ready to make her mark on the big city as we see in “Dance My Way to the Light” and “Queen of New York.” Ann’s dreams are quickly crushed by a long list of “nexts” and rejections for potential parts on the stage and even in commercials. Christiani Pitts’s performance is really impressive during this frantic series of vignettes. It feels like Pitts is doing a one-woman show but during this performance and throughout most of this play I really have to give credit to the ensemble cast. The performers aren’t just dancers in the background or back-up vocals. They are moving, breathing props, part of the set, and the atmosphere itself. They are the personified energy of New York City, the wind through the rigging on the deck of the ship, and the living forest on Skull Island.

By the end of her progression from naive to world-weary, it looks like the city has almost beaten Ann but when a bartender offers to let her stay in the bar for some “favors” she slaps him, showing that even at the lowest point she’s still fighting. This incident gets the attention of director Carl Denham played by Eric William Morris. Carl convinces Ann to take a chance and join in on this once in a lifetime opportunity. Ann makes a decision and she’s whisked away to the deck of a ship about to leave harbor. The use of rear projection coupled with the tilting stage was an awesome effect. It really gave the feeling like you are a member of the crew and sailing out to sea and adventure. I’d like to take this opportunity to give a shout out to Captain Englehorn played by Rory Donovan. We only catch a glimpse of him but I wish we could have seen more character development. I really enjoyed the gritty, rhythmic song “Pressure Up.” You really get a sense of the pressure building amongst the crew and feel the rhythm of the waves.  It’s during this time that we also meet Lumpy played by Erik Lochtefeld. Lumpy is the loveable, seemingly simple-minded distributer of wisdom in this story. He is Ann’s emotional support, Denham’s conscience, and voice of reason throughout the play. Lumpy almost brought me to tears a few times and has one of the best “oh snap” moments in the story when he finally calls out Denham for his horrible life choices.

Christiani Pitts as “Ann Darrow” and The Company of KING KONG | Photo by Matthew Murphy

The crew finally makes it to Skull Island where the jungle is literally alive  with cast members dressed as vines, wrapping themselves around the main characters as they trudge through foliage. The music, lighting and background give an almost psychedelic atmosphere. It’s here that we get ready for our true main character, the spectacle that we all came to see. The background is pitch black, our heroine is dangling above the stage and the audience is completely silent as we hear breaking branches, the pounding of enormous feet and guttural growls. The first thing you can see is a set of sharp teeth floating impossibly high. As Kong is revealed, you hear a collective gasp of the people around you until Kong lets out a roar and everyone jumps in unison. He is incredible! A 20-foot tall, 2000 pound puppet with a face controlled by animatronics that give him life-like expressions. Kong’s body is manipulated on stage by a group of people in black cowls and held up by sets of cables that are unhooked and repositioned based on his movements. It reminded me of watching Mummenschanz-style  shows as a child but the “King’s Company” doesn’t always fade into the back like those puppeteers because at times it’s hard to not pay attention to the acrobatics of these performers. It’s important to note that his vocalizations aren’t just recordings. Jon Hoche is the voice of Kong and performs in tandem with “voodoo operators” controlling the animatronics off-stage so the interactions between Ann and Kong are real.

The story follows the  familiar narrative of most King Kong movies with the opportunistic Denham catching the creature and taking him back to the U.S. to display like some kind of horrible exhibition. We all know what happens next – all hell breaks loose! When the show started, I thought that Christiani Pitts had a good voice and she definitely brings a lot of energy to the part but it wasn’t until “Scream for the Money” that I was truly blown away. Much like the roar of Kong himself, Pitts’s voice reverberates through the theater. She roars her defiance against the male controlled industry and her emotions are palpable. It gave me chills! I also want to mention another cool aspect of this play that I think worked out really well. The entire production essentially breaks the 4th wall and we become Kong’s audience in Denham’s play within the play. It’s at this point that the extra money people paid to sit in the first couple rows are worth every penny when the King himself notices the hundreds of people staring at him and decides to investigate. I was several rows back and I couldn’t help but squeal as a huge hand sweeps over the seats and he growls at the insolent gawkers.

The special effects used in this production were pretty amazing throughout and really added to the experience. I was wondering how they would pull off Kong climbing to the top of the Empire State Building and I thought it was brilliant to show him climbing  from the point of view of inside the building. They used a slow motion effect and beams of light to represent the hail of bullets assaulting Kong to pull off an emotional death scene. I don’t claim to be an expert when it comes to theater but as a fan of King Kong and monster movies in general, I was enthralled with this play. I can definitely say, I have never seen anything like it. As with every incarnation of King Kong, I fell in love with the monster. His soulful, intelligent eyes just tug at my heartstrings every time. I have seen some negative reviews from theater critics and it reminds me of how movie critics will tear apart action movies. I’m not going to say the production is flawless but if you go into it realizing that this is supposed to be fun and a visual spectacle, you won’t be disappointed.

For more information or to purchase tickets to KING KONG ALIVE ON BROADWAY, visit www.Telecharge.com.

“King Kong” | Photo by Joan Marcus

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