- King Kong by Craig Lucas and Marius de Vries
Speaking of the 1933 film to historian Rudy Behlmer, director Merian C. Cooper said: “King Kong was escapist entertainment—pure and simple.” Global Creatures, the company behind the arena spectacles Walking with Dinosaurs and How to Train Your Dragon, propagated Cooper’s vision by reimagining the epic myth for the musical theatre stage. Although largely an effects-driven production, the musical aimed to transcend mere escapism by exploring the contradictions of the American dream, offering an evening of Hollywood- and Broadway-worthy spectacle that simultaneously critiqued the very impulses and methods on which these industries thrive. In its musical and movement styles, design aesthetics, and, most significantly, in the creation of Kong himself, the production strove to articulate the tensions between the pleasures of larger-than-life spectacle and the consequences of these indulgences. As the chorus of provocatively clad dancers warned, “You kill for the thrill, but the thrill is gonna’ kill ya’.”
Lucas’s book closely followed the screenplay of Cooper’s 1933 film. Hungry for fame and fortune, Hollywood director Carl Denham (Adam Lyon) embarks on a voyage to Skull Island with a film crew to document the creature rumored to live there. En route, Denham’s leading lady, Ann Darrow (Esther Hannaford), falls for the ship’s first mate, Jack Driscoll (Chris Ryan), and their love story develops against the backdrop of Kong’s capture and escape onto the streets of Manhattan. In the production, Denham’s greed and overweening ambition to create “the Greatest Show on Earth” became not only a musical number, but also a metaphor for the culture of greed, celebrity, and exploitation that fueled the recent global financial crisis. However, in its efforts to bring the technological wizardry of film animatronics and special effects to the live stage, King Kong struggled to rise above escapism.
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The production sought to bring the past to bear on the contemporary moment by combining a variety of musical and choreographic idioms. Marius de Vries’s score sampled such disparate musical genres as pop, opera, electronica, and 1930s standards. Gorney and Harburg’s “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” and Arlen’s “Get Happy” were heavily synthesized, digitally remixed, and presented alongside original songs by Robert “3D” Del Naja (of trip-hop group Massive Attack) and Sarah McLachlan. While this choice drew apt parallels between the Great Depression and contemporary culture, the overall effect [End Page 580] was more musical pastiche than cohesive score. John O’Connell’s choreography also merged historical and contemporary idioms, but reproduced sexually charged choreography and chorus-girl/sex-icon tropes without interrogation or critique. In the song “Special FX,” for example, Ann was surrounded by chorus girls wearing leather bustiers singing “Switch on that projector / I’m the special effect / Don’t need no story or director / Just a face that’s perfect.” While these lyrics ostensibly interrogated the vacuousness of celebrity culture, the choreography cheerfully reproduced the iconic gestures of Busby Berkeley and Ziegfeld Follies alongside those of Madonna and Beyoncé. O’Connell’s expertise in film choreography (The Great Gatsby, Strictly Ballroom) did not translate well to the live stage: many of the dance numbers appeared imagistic and better-suited for postproduction editing than live performance.
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The tension between filmic representation and theatrical presentation was palpable throughout, which was perhaps appropriate for a production that sought to incorporate cinematic effects within a digitally animated stage. Indeed, many aspects of the performance were animated by performers, not just the massive puppet of the title. Peter England’s set featured projections on a 180-degree LED cyclorama that were generated live through sensing technologies that responded to the performers’ movements. Skull Island was created through projections on plastic “vines” suspended from above and...