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The 20-foot, 2,000 pound silverback King Kong is no match for Christiani Pitts, the beautiful young actress making a big leap to stardom playing the coveted female lead, Ann Darrow, in the Broadway megamusical King Kong. Of her first leading role, she says, “It’s been an incredible journey after having been in only one Broadway show. I’m so excited, I can cry, In fact, I’ve pretty much cried every day.”
Pitts states she’s “unbelievably fortunate and blessed. It’s one of the most incredible gifts from God I’ve received. I’m overwhelmed with how happy and grateful I am. It’s the only way I can describe it!”
Pitts was a virtual force of nature after she worked her way up in her first Broadway show from ensemble to co-star as Jane, the gal from the other side of the Italian-dominated neighborhood along Belmont Avenue in A Bronx Tale, the musical adaptation by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater of Chazz Palminteri’s solo play and film. Now, she’s standing tall in the coveted role of Ann Darrow, the role made famous onscreen by the never-forgotten Fay Wray in a huge cast of 35 actors and puppeteers.
Along her magical journey to the Broadway Theatre, “something I couldn’t even imagine a mere few months ago, there’ve been rehearsals, rehearsals, rehearsals. I’ve never worked harder or learned more.” One fun sequence in the musical is when Christiani/Ann is ask to do the type of blood-curdling scream made famous and infamous by Wray in the 1933 film. It’s take a while.
Christiani, in her late-20s, has been garnering standing ovations not only for her performance and stunning vocals but also seemingly incredible powers. In a salute to the #MeToo movement, the gigantic, fierce beast [you don’t have to be in the theatre to hear the bombastic roar that literally shakes the walls!] is no match for this female who, in one of the show’s iconic moments, calms Kong into a peaceful sleep with a lilting lullaby.
She’s on the Broadway Theatre’s stage so much, she never makes it to her dressing room until intermission; and in Act Two, it’s non-stop. Still, Christiani describes what she’s doing as fun, especially working around the large ensemble of puppeteers. “They have a skill set unlike anything I’ve ever seen. They have to be hyper-focused for safety reasons, but they make it all look so easy.”
“When we first saw Christiani,” says lead co-producer Carmen Pavlovic, “she blew us away. She embodies everything we aspired to in creating a female protagonist who is relevant in 2018. She is an Ann Darrow for our time – plucky, courageous and the master of her own destiny.”
Christiani’s opening number in King Kong is the rousing “Queen of New York,” and it appears she may be on her way to becoming just that.
The role of Ann Darrow has been much expanded to showcase Christiani’s strengths. For instance, when the shifty film producer Carl Denham, played with great gusto by Eric William Morris (Coram Boy, Mamma Mia!), who trying to tame the untamable in a film with a Skid Row budget and then decides to introduce him to Broadway, Christiani/Ann stomps on his megalomaniacal ego to do battle royal. She attempts to stop him from the destructive path he’s on. She’s not there just to do a blood-curdling scream.
“The role requires me to be all the things I’ve been working for since I was a child,” says Christiani.“ The singing, acting, and athleticism is all I’ve ever wanted to do. It’s a role I’ve been preparing for since grammar school. Broadway’s is every actor’s dream, and, oh my, I’ve been twice-blessed. It’s really insane. I’m still pinching myself to make sure it’s real.”
King Kong, the musical, is adapted by Jack Thorne, the Olivier- and Tony-winning playwright behind Harry Potter and the Curse Child. Music is by Grammy-winner Marius de Vries (music director, upcoming Moulin Rouge, La La Land) and Australia’s Eddie Perfect (the soon-to-be stage adaptation of Beetlejuice). Directing is Brit Drew McOnie (West End’s Strictly Ballroom and an Olivier-winner for In the Heights), who’s also responsible for the show’s quite unusual and dizzying choreography that appears to be heavily-influenced by Martha Graham and the most famous choreographer of cheerleader squads. David Caddick (The Phantom of the Opera) is music director.
“King Kong is an epic story, but also a really intimate one, about the limits of ambition and the cages we're put in,” states Thorne. “Thankfully, in Christiani and Eric we've two remarkable talents who lead our incredible and multi-talented company.”
The mammoth animatronic Kong, designed by Sonny Tildlers, with movement-directed by Gavin Robins, is created by Melbourne, Australia by Global Technology (How to Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular). Kong is controlled by 16 microprocessors. He has over 45 driven axis of movement. Fibreglass gives body shape. Inflatable air bags are patterned into his chest. The arms and legs are built on high pressure inflatable tubes. The 90’ x 27’ LED screen, Broadway’s biggest, takes audiences on a realistic journey to New York of the 1930’s and on rolling seas to mysterious, uncharted, and aptly-named Skull Island.
There are some very strong, memorable moments in King Kong, as when the skyscraper ape decides to check out unsuspecting folks in the front rows. “No one’s expecting that,” laughs Christiani. “They quickly get so caught up in the show that they think he’s real.”
Christiani is beginning to feel that way, too. “I thought the more time I spent with Kong, the less realistic he’d be, but it’s just the opposite. I see little nuances on his face that weren’t there before. Then, then there’s the way he moves and the way he communicates with me. Kong feels like a living, breathing creature. It’s quite entrancing. Kong is always portrayed as a menace, but he’s not a villain.”
She’s thought of that moment in the classic film when Ann Darrow is lifeless in Kong’s hand, “but it’s different for me. I get to be next to Kong. I feel small, but I feel like an equal. It’s incredibly empowering! Nothing about him is not alive. He’s fully alive and makes me want to be a better and stronger actress because I have to be aware of what’s happening and be so present. It’s a beautiful challenge.”
She’s the daughter of author and TV journalist and anchor Byron Pitts (ABC’s Nightline). Her mother is an Georgia-based event planner. “With three older sisters, two older step-brothers, and a younger brother, we were like the Brady Bunch.” For a while, she and an older sister had a singing group. “She lost the passion for it, but it only grew in me. By the time I decided I was going into theater, the family wasn’t exactly shocked. It was like, ‘Finally!’”
She began singing at age eight in her church choir in Georgia and continued to sing when the family relocated to New Jersey. By age 11, she was making recordings and appearing in plays. Right out of high school, she was cast in a production of Tim Rice and Elton John’s Aida; then, in her sophomore year of college, she was cast in the musical as Aida’s servant Nehebka. She also began writing screenplays, which had to take a backseat when she began going the audition route in New York, and when cast in A Bronx Tale. “I love the creative process of writing and it’s something I’ll pursue when things aren’t so hectic.”
In 2014, in her junior year of college, Christiani says, “I had my first really awesome theater experience performing in Rent.” She lost a longtime friend and the Jonathan Larson musical “helped me heal. It was a turning point for me. Theater was my church, my therapy. Now, I’m not putting on shows in our living room. I’m on Broadway, singing and acting and getting paid to do it. Life is wonderful, isn’t it!”
King Kong production photographs by Matthew Murphy and Joan Marcus
Written by Jez Butterworth; directed by Sam Mendes
Performances through December 23, 2018
Laura Donnelly, Genevieve O’Reilly and Paddy Considine in The Ferryman (photo: Joan Marcus)
As his last foray on Broadway, the bloated Jerusalem, can attest, no one would ever accuse Jez Butterworth of subtlety. So it’s not surprising that his new play The Ferryman is permeated by death, from the on-the-nose title to the risibly implausible bit of violence that climaxes its equally overlong three-plus hours.
Set in late August, 1981, on the Carney farm in Northern Ireland on Harvest Day, The Ferryman traffics in nefarious IRA doings. The Carney family has been deeply affected by the disappearance Seamus—younger brother of Quinn, head of the household—years before, and now that his pickled body has been discovered in a bog, the questions arise: Why was he killed, and by whom? Seamus’ widow Cait lives in the sprawling Carney farmhouse with her teenage son, cooking and doing chores for Quinn, his frail wife Mary and their children: four girls and three boys (including a nine-month-old infant). Since Mary spends so much of her time indisposed, naturally a spark has arisen between sister- and brother-in-law.
Also on hand are two elderly aunts: Patricia, who buzzes around getting angry at the radio over Margaret Thatcher insulting the Irish; and Aunt Maggie Far Away, an invalid whose lucid moments are few and far between. Patricia’s husband, Uncle Patrick (they’re both Pat, get it?), who explains the play’s title in a superfluous scene, rounds out the family.
Despite its trappings and author’s undeniably clever way with profane dialogue, The Ferryman is dramatically flimsy, so Butterworth relies heavily on obvious foreshadowing, heavy-handed symbolism and even the real sufferings of hunger strikers like Bobby Sands, who deserve better than to be dragged in to give weight to these entertaining but superficial goings-on.
The Ferryman reaches its nadir at the opening of the third act, when the Carney boys and their cousins discuss their own IRA memories (with the youngest improbably spitting out the most cutting quips), stopping the play dead in its tracks. It never really recovers: the climactic bloodletting and Aunt Maggie Far Away’s final ominous words (“They’re here!”) are more a dramatic shortcut than a genuinely satisfying ending.
Certainly the staging can’t be faulted. Director Sam Mendes paces The Ferryman so skillfully that there’s always an air of suspense hanging over the proceedings. Mendes makes Butterworth’s choppy writing seem seamless; there’s enough authentically casual interplay among the cast of 21 to make them a believably large family, something Butterworth only nods toward in his sprawling, ramshackle script. Mendes even makes assets of audience-baiting ploys: having an actual infant (four are in rotation) portray the Carney’s nine-month-old son and bringing a live goose and rabbit onstage oohs and aahs.
The flawless acting is an even greater asset. All of the youngsters—including the infant!—are at home in this household, with dialogue has salty as their elders’ (it’s the old Bad News Bears trope that adorable kids swearing make spectators swoon). Stuart Graham as malevolent IRA man Muldoon and Justin Edwards as simpleton Tom Kettle breathe coruscating life into stock characters: the scene between Tom and Cait (a heartbreaking Laura Donnelly), as he bumblingly and touchingly proposes, is the most effective in the entire play.
Vets Fionnula Flanagan (Aunt Maggie), Mark Lambert (Uncle Pat) and Dearbhla Molloy (Aunt Pat) give Butterworth’s words the perfect zesty snap. And, front and center, Paddy Considine is, amazingly, making his Broadway debut as Quinn, a decent but conflicted man juggling being a father, husband, brother-in-law, son, farmer, IRA sympathizer and survivor. Considine brings racy charm, abundant humor and seriously tragic dimensions to Quinn, something Butterworth doesn’t achieve on his own.
Even if The Ferryman isn’t a great play, watching this sparkling ensemble, estimably directed by Mendes, perform on Rob Howell’s extraordinary set (but what’s up with all those stairs?) is a richly theatrical experience.
Bernard Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street, New York, NY
Boxed Set of the Week
Robin Williams—Comic Genius
When Robin Williams committed suicide in 2014, the world was robbed of one of its greatest comedians, an endlessly inventive and original performer who was always “on” whenever in front of the camera. That he left so much topnotch material in his many stand-up routines, tours, appearances on various television shows, and his starring role in his breakout hit Mork and Mindy is underscored in this (mostly) terrific boxed set.
At 22 DVDs and more than 50 hours, the aptly-named Comic Genius collects the many facets of Williams: his five sidesplitting HBO specials; several episodes from Mork; many live appearances on Johnny Carson, Jimmy Kimmel, Oprah and SNL (too bad they weren’t able to get any of his uproarious Letterman appearances or anything at all from Comic Relief); this year’s touching HBO documentary, Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, from director Marina Zenovich; and his unique appearance on Inside the Actor’s Studio. There’s a lot more—extras include interviews with Billy Crystal, Steve Martin, Jay Leno, Eric Idle, David Steinberg, Lewis Black and son Zak Williams, along with behind-the-scenes footage, featurettes, etc.—and it’s all housed with a 24-page book of archival photos, reminiscences from others and Williams’ own jottings.
Blu-rays of the Week
Dracula A.D. 1972
In this relatively mild Hammer horror feature from (natch) 1972, Christopher Lee plays the resurrected Transylvanian Count who comes to swingin’ England to set his fangs on the comely daughter of vampire hunter Dr. Van Helsing (played with stylish nonchalance by Peter Cushing).
The movie meanders about, with pseudo-hip scenes featuring bad live musical performances, and the anticipated showdown between Lee and Cushing is too muted. But completists—this is the penultimate Hammer Dracula flick with Lee—will enjoy it. The hi-def transfer is fine.
Clive Tonge’s paranormal horror flick has the courage of its convictions—at least until the usual inconsistencies that imperil the genre rear their heads like the sleep demon that terrorizes so many of its characters.
Lending elegance to what becomes a by-the-numbers screamfest is Olga Kurylenko, who gives credibility to this increasingly incredulous tale as a psychiatrist trying to understand why the creepy spirit appears. There’s an excellent Blu-ray transfer; lone extra is a making-of featurette.
Poldark—Complete 4th Season
The smash-hit series’ fourth season keeps the rivalry going between our engaging eponymous hero Ross and his loathsome adversary George (inexplicably married to Ross’s former flame Elizabeth), with the added incentive for George that, since Ross has outsmarted him and is now a member of Parliament, George continues scheming to return to politics.
The superb cast is led by Aidan Turner (Ross), Eleanor Tomlinson (Poldark’s wife Demelza), Heida Reed (Elizabeth) and Jack Farthing (George); the subplots, especially that of Reverend Ossie Whitworth and his unfortunate young wife Morwenna, are especially diverting, and the shocking—if not unexpected—death of one of the major characters (sob!) serves as a cliffhanger of sorts. The hi-def transfer is gorgeous; extras are short featurettes and interviews.
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