Updated: Aug 24
"Don't be alarmed, ladies and gentlemen. Those chains are made of chrome steel!"
He may be savage and monstrous, but there’s something magical about seeing a huge creature like Kong on the big screen ruling the jungle, bellowing and snorting, snarling and destroying everything in his path. You become breathless, your heart rate skyrockets, muscles at the base of each hair become tighter, causing piloerection, colloquially called goosebumps.
The sympathetic nervous system responsible for fight-or-flight response gives the adrenal gland a nudge, encouraging it to squirt a dose of epinephrine into your bloodstream. As a culture, we seem to be craving these intense panic button experiences more and more.
And after being inundated with this kind of CGI magic in movies for decades, we long to have that same frisson of fear in a live environment like theatre — it satisfies so much of what audiences want when they, say, go into a dark auditorium with a hundred strangers, seeking some transformative experience. In this case, however, it’s all about the 2,000-pound gorilla in the room, and this visually dazzling production delivers big time.
Clever, engaging, and most importantly — fun, “King Kong: The Eighth Wonder of the World” is set to run at The Maverick from August 21st through September 11th. Based on the novel by Delos W. Lovelace with the original story by Merian C. Cooper, it stirs a new appreciation for the 1933 classic film as well as the symbiotic harmonizing of high technology and live theatre. Using visual effects, miniatures and puppetry combined with live footage projected onto an enormous screen, the actors interact with pre-produced background stills and movie scenes and sometimes even become part of the projections, using off stage camera effects.
Legendary movie characters don’t get any bigger than King Kong — unless you include Godzilla — but even he took a back seat to the big chest-beater in their latest battles earlier this year. In this case, narrative minimalist Brian Newell, an expert at scripting shows of immense size, sweep and wonder, has adapted to the stage this sizable story to two thirty-minute acts and only ten characters — with one who doesn’t speak at all except for loud guttural growls. But even though this is not a musical, you could say Kong has one of the best 11 o’clock numbers you may have ever seen as everyone goes bananas while he goes on a frantic squall through the streets of New York, climbing buildings, eating people, smashing trains, making noise. So much fun.
But then, The Maverick Theater already has a long history of adapting movies on stage, showcasing sell-out runs with the likes of "Night of the Living Dead," "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians," and "Plan 9 From Outer Space.”
The narrative arc of the play is the Ahab-like pursuit of Kong by slick movie director Carl Denham (Paul Zelhart), who kidnaps the big ape from mysterious, prehistoric Skull Island. All with the help of aspiring star Ann Darrow (the splendid Kalinda Gray — yes, even her screams are eloquent). Ann is a natural actress with no showbiz break on the horizon and, to top it off, has found herself homeless and hungry, standing in a Depression-era soup line.
Things change when her path crosses with the charming-then-smarmy Denham, who promises to make her a star on a mysterious movie project. What he doesn’t tell her is he only needs her to be a victim in a slinky dress. So, in a flash they’ve set sail across the Atlantic for Skull Island, along with Joe Sanders as Carl’s slow-witted, golden-hearted assistant, Lumpy, Jeff Lowe (alternating with Jason Evans) as first-mate Jack Driscoll, a man’s man…rugged and tough, Glenn Freeze as wise, reliable and always cautious Captain Englehorn as well as the Sergeant, and Donny Van Horn as Jimmy, who also plays Mabel. During the trip, Ann becomes Jack Driscoll’s girl, stealing his heart much like the spunky, golden-haired, fair-skinned damsel steals the heart of Kong.
John Castro later plays the indigenous tribe Witchdoctor, Scott Keister stars as the Native King as well as Weston, the agent who was contracted by Denham to hire him an actress for his movie, and Rob Downs is the 8th Wonder.
Soon Kong is in chains to be exploited in New York as The Eighth Wonder of the World. In a now legendary climactic scene, the gargantuan simian breaks loose, wreaks havoc, and meets his end atop the newly built Empire State Building. Not only is it a boldly re-imagined take on the great beauty and the beast classic fable, showing the true darkness underneath, “King Kong” also makes an impressive capture of the Great Depression through superb era costuming and background footage of 1933 New York, the year the economic disaster reached its lowest point, with some 15 million Americans unemployed and nearly half the country’s banks bankrupt.
The first thing you see of Kong is his fangs: sharp, white, gleaming in the dark. He has been summoned by the ambitious young actress, and sure enough, no sooner has Ann tangled herself in ropes and lets out a scream does the fearsome monster emerge from the jungle to find her, grab her and spirit her off to his lonely mountain lair—Christine Daaé to his megafauna Phantom—as the audience gapes, claps and whoops with glee.
But even aside from fighting off giant snakes or dinosaurs, his regular visits to the native village to collect his sacrificial dinner, or his wildly raging temper through the big city, Kong does have his slumberous, jowly moments, when he seems more like a Khrushchev on Thorazine.
Director Newell’s employment of video, miniatures and various tech enables the whole production to work beautifully. There’s even a giant mechanical hand that allows the ape to grab and interact with the story’s normal-sized characters, helping to capture not only a sense of high adventure, wonder and excitement, but also a good deal of tongue-in-cheek humor.
To bring Kong to life and make him appear to tower over the story’s characters, Newell uses Maverick Light and Magic, the theater’s special effects team to handle the green screen rear-projection/compositing technology combined with a closed-circuit live video feed of an actor in an ape costume, in this case, Mr. Downs, performing live.
“King Kong” involves a total of 14 designers and technicians, including costume designer Celestina Hudson, who created and built an ape suit, as well as the film’s iconic Fay Wray dress and Skull Island native costumes. Brian Newell also handles Lighting, Sound, Video and Production Design; Technical Director is Jim Book (Maverick co-founder); Art Director is Alex Conway; the Maverick Light & Magic Crew are Jon Gaw and Pat Mannion, with additional Video Design by Gavin Carlton.
More fun than I’ve had at a theatre in a very long time, this “King Kong” cannot resist a little camp, producing several savory moments of meta-theatrical wit. Ultimately, I found myself torn between admiring the craftsmanship of the video/stage symmetry to the beauty and aesthetic force of the wonderful cast.
It’s in fact so much fun that when Kong “Rampages” through the streets of Manhattan, I’m left wondering whether Dwayne Johnson might show up for a cameo too. But on the closeups, his eyes seem to be preternaturally expressive, and when he rears back on his furry legs and lets out a gutteral roar — the theater trembles.
King Kong runs through September 11th at the Maverick Theater, 110 E. Walnut Avenue in Fullerton, CA. FYI: COVID-19 policy requires ticketholders to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Tickets may be purchased at https://www.tix.com/ticket-sales/mavericktheater/491
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report