King Of Manhattan: Broadway’s Newest Star Is An Ape Known As Kong

Christiani Pitts as Ann Darrow and King Kong (Photos by Joan Marcus)

A giant gorilla perched atop Manhattan’s Empire State building, swatting at planes with one arm while grasping a screaming woman in his other is an image that many have known for decades. The ape known as Kong has appeared in various forms of media, from original films and television shows to merchandise and paraphernalia. Now, he has come to Broadway.

The epic myth of King Kong comes alive with the modern trappings of 2019. Directed and choreographed by Drew McOnie, King Kong features a score by Marius de Vries (La La Land) and Eddie Perfect (Beetlejuice The Musical), and a book by Jack Thorne, the Tony Award-winning writer of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

It’s the year 1931 and young actress Ann Darrow (Christiani Pitts), has dreams of making it big. She finds her big break in the form of Carl Denham (Eric William Morris), a fast-talking wildlife filmmaker who promises to make her the star of his next big adventure movie. The two journey to the mysterious Skull Island where they encounter King Kong. An unlikely friendship forms between Darrow and Kong, but when Denham hatches a plan to capture the ape, the actress must make a difficult choice.

Growing up in Bergen County, NJ, Eric William Morris was always an athlete, getting involved with many sports as a youth. When he began playing music in bands, he got a taste of performing in a different way. But it wasn’t until Morris took a drama class that he truly fell in love with the art of acting.

“The teacher was Okey Chenoweth and he was a legend. He inspired a lot of people, myself included,” said Morris, who was unsure of his career path and enrolled in Loyola University Maryland, a private liberal arts college where he could continue acting. “I got into Circle in the Square Theatre School, a conservatory program that allowed me to focus and take myself seriously as an actor.”

Morris’ first professional role came when he joined the Actors’ Equity Association and performed in a summer production of a musical called The Rink by Terrence McNally at the Cape Playhouse in Massachusetts. He has also performed in Songbird (Off-Broadway) and Coram Boy (Broadway). A New Yorker since 2005, when Morris heard that King Kong was heading to the Great White Way, he initially thought it was a ridiculous idea, like many who questioned how a giant gorilla could possibly be worthy of the Broadway stage.

Eric William Morris as Carl Denham

“I didn’t know why they would do that, but I found out about the auditions,” said Morris, noting that there had yet to be a script for the show, but several workshops were already in place. “When I was sent the script, I really loved it, and the music as well.”

Morris said he auditioned for the show because he was taken aback at how “human and wonderful the story was.” He said that the draw of the female protagonist, Ann Darrow, who is accountable for her actions and trying to live her dream of being an actor in New York, resonated with him.

King Kong is a very human show,” said Morris of the morality tale of loyalty and remaining true to your beliefs. “I was taken with that story very early on.”

The actor found out that he got the role of Carl Denham in the most apropos of scenarios: on top of a mountain.

The company of King Kong (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

“I was snowboarding in Vermont and my phone was in my pocket. I took it out to take a picture and saw a message from my agent,” he said of the King Kong-height of the locale. “Carl wants to shake up the world. In the first scene, he says that the world has lost its sense of wonder and he often gets carried away with his own ambitions. Most people don’t root for him, but I certainly do.”

The original King Kong movie debuted in 1933 and was legendary in its own rights, but especially for that time. The film has remained relevant because of the ingenuity of storytelling, which Morris finds comical: the fact that a Claymation puppet that was the wonder of the 1933 film, is the exact opposite in the 2019 show where everyone knows it is a puppet being operated.

“The puppet responds differently every night in its movements like it’s another actor on stage. It really is something incredible to see.”

The “puppet” in question is a massive, 1-ton, multi-million dollar gorilla that is operated by 13 puppeteers at all times on stage. According to Morris, a version of the show was performed in Australia in 2013 and built around the puppet, which stands at 23 feet tall and is entirely live puppetry, no mechanics or animatronics here, folks. And while the massive gorilla certainly makes the show, as to why audiences should see King Kong in its Broadway form, Morris said there is no better time than right now.

“It’s the perfect time for the exact theme we’ve been talking about. People get cynical and think they’ve seen it all, then they see the puppet and their jaws drop to the floor,” he said. “They are completely taken away with the wonder and magic and I think it reduces people to their 7-year-old self. It’s 2019 and the fact that we can be in a room together and be moved by a puppet and a story line is truly remarkable.”

For tickets to see King Kong, visit King Kong is playing at the Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway, NYC.

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Jennifer Fauci
Jennifer Fauci is the former managing editor of Long Island Weekly, Anton Media Group's award-winning special sections and Anton’s local magazines. Her passion for literature, travel and the arts lend to the unique content in her publications. In her time at Anton, she has received first place in the Folio Awards, second place for the NYPA awards and is the recipient of six PCLI awards.

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