King Kong has again come crashing down to Earth in New York, with the big-budget Australian-made stage show copping a savage strafing from critics upon its official opening overnight.
The $US35 million production has won praise for its leading man – a seven-metre made-in-Melbourne marionette gorilla operated by a team of a dozen puppeteers – muted appreciation of its leading lady, Christiani Pitts, and universal plaudits for creature designer Sonny Tilders. But it's brickbats all round for pretty much everything else.
Nonetheless, several critics recommended the show to audiences – as a spectacle, if not as a piece of musical theatre.
Songwriter Eddie Perfect has been singled out – for all the wrong reasons. "The score is a hodgepodge of soundtrack-style murk by Marius de Vries and a clutch of no-profile songs by Eddie Perfect," wrote Jesse Green in The New York Times.
In Variety, Frank Rizzo wrote, "individual songs by Eddie Perfect are blandly generic and forgettable", while The Wall Street Journal‘s Terry Teachout said "the score and songs, jointly concocted by Marius de Vries and Eddie Perfect, are loud and vapid". He also said the book, by Tony winner Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), was "stupefyingly banal".
The criticism of the songs is a harsh blow for Perfect, who has spent the past two years working on two productions simultaneously. Both have now been savaged by critics within the space of a week.
His songs for the stage adaptation of Tim Burton's 1988 movie Beetlejuice, which is in out-of-town tryout in Washington, D.C. ahead of a planned April 2019 debut on Broadway, were lashed in reviews last week.
Jayne Blanchard in DC Theatre Scene said "although some of Eddie Perfect's [Beetlejuice] lyrics are clever, his music is derivative and unassuming, as if ticking off a Broadway check list".
Peter Marks in the Washington Post was a little kinder, noting that "Perfect's predictably peppy pop score contains a couple of serviceable power ballads … and a few curveballs: A boy-band parody number in the Netherworld feels about as 2018 as an episode of Friends".
But Paul Harris noted in Variety that "Perfect's score [for Beetlejuice] is another trouble spot. There are few melodies of distinction, and at times it musicalises scenes that arguably could be more effectively conveyed in dialogue."
The creature and leading lady Christiani Pitts have received praise but the rest of the show has been slammed.Credit:JOAN MARCUS
Though heavily reworked since its 2013 debut in Melbourne, the New York production of King Kong has provoked much the same critical response as it did at home – namely that it is visually spectacular but musically and narratively underwhelming.
Typical of the response was Erin Strecker in Mashable, who wrote "if this was an attraction at a theme park, I'd give it five stars. Unfortunately, it's a Broadway musical, not the latest from Universal. And while Kong the beast is magnificent, the show certainly isn't."
But writing in The Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney opined that despite its shortcomings, the show was still well worth seeing.
"Even if the star puppet might be better suited for an arena spectacle or theme-park attraction, you can't take your eyes off this technological marvel, not least for its incredible facial expressiveness … if you shut out all the surrounding useless noise and just focus on the awesome beast, the story of a wild creature caged and cruelly exploited for the purposes of entertainment and greed can still hit you where it hurts."
The New York version of King Kong is a completely new production.Credit:Joan Marcus
But for all the praise of Kong the puppet, there was in some of the criticism a hint of snobbish disdain for the origins of Sydney-based Global Creatures – precisely in the field of puppet-led arena spectaculars such as Walking With Dinosaurs and How To Train Your Dragon.
"Perhaps we are mistaken in applying arty standards to the cynical product of an ambitious entertainment company that made its name on animatronic arena shows," wrote Jesse Green in The New York Times.
The Guardian‘s Alexis Solosky echoed that, praising and damning in almost the same breath.
"As a feat of stagecraft and structural engineering, Kong is cool," she wrote. But it was also "a show that makes breathlessly little sense and is rarely even fun. The people who brought you Walking with Dinosaurs have now brought you Lumbering with Primates."
The New York criticisms echo those of the Melbourne production, which starred Esther Hannaford.Credit:Eddie Jim
Before the show opened, producer Carmen Pavlovic acknowledged it was slightly audacious for an Australian company to take up residency in one of the city's biggest theatres with this most New York of stories. But, she added, "we've felt very welcome here".
Chances are, everyone involved with the show is feeling just a little less welcome today.
Karl is co-host of the weekly pop culture podcast The Clappers.
Follow him on Facebook at karlquinnjournalist and on twitter @karlkwin
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