Broadway's "King Kong" puppet is a marvel of technology and stagecraft

The Broadway musical "King Kong" is the latest retelling of a story the world can't seem to get enough of. Since the original movie version's premiere in 1933, "King Kong" has inspired multiple remakes, sequels and guest appearances in the films of other famous movie monsters.

The headliner of a Broadway show is often referred to as the top banana, or the 800-pound gorilla and in this case, it actually is a 20-foot-tall, 2,000-pound gorilla.

Odie Henderson reviews and writes about movies for RogerEbert.com. He's a lifelong fan of the original King Kong tale in all its various tellings. "I think every generation gets the Bond they deserve and I think every generation gets the 'King ong' they deserve," Henderson said.

"I think you can identify with it if you didn't belong anywhere. If you felt that you were out of place and I guess the allure of King Kong is that he is the great giant outsider who's come to this major town and causes a sensation," he said. "He's not just an animal, you know, he's kind of become somebody that you can look at you know and have some empathy for."

Henderson has always thought of "King Kong" as a New York love story, a point that isn't lost on Kong's current Broadway leading lady Christiani Pitts.

"When I first saw him I cried a little bit because I couldn't believe that that was my scene partner and my co-star. And it took me about 15 minutes of silence of just sort of walking around his body and touching different places his arms, his hands to just really let it sit in that I'm going to be forming a relationship with him for the next year of my life," Pitts said. "And it was overwhelming because he is so magnificent. I mean it's technology and creativity at its finest."

"King Kong" Broadway Opening Night
Opening night of "King Kong" at The Broadway Theatre in New York City on November 8, 2018. Bruce Glikas/WireImage via Getty

Like the creature himself, this Kong was born across the sea before making his way to New York City. The puppet is a marvel of technology and stagecraft. It contains 16 microprocessors that give Kong life-like motions and emotions. His chest and abs are constructed of airbag-like materials and his limbs are made of high-pressure inflatable tubes.

To bring Pitts' co-star to life takes a team of 13 talented performers – 10 onstage and three creating the colossal puppet's larger movements, facial expressions, and voice from a glass booth at the back of the theater.

Drew McOnie is the show's director and choreographer. He uses a microphone to communicate with his team members in the booth.

"There's a moment in the show where Ann touches his face and he you can feel genuine love and kind of almost mournful. Kind of aside from him. He reaches out," McOnie said. "I think everyone is expecting the scale and the kind of epic nature of him but nobody's ever really prepared for the emotional capacity of the beast…the thing that absolutely punched me square in the soul was when you look into the eyes of the beast and he's got this amazing kind of liquid depth within his eyes. You can almost see yourself reflected within it."

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Christiani Pitts CBS News

That aspect – the eyes – may be the key to the character's connection with audiences. Odie Henderson and Kong's costar agree.

"Those eyes are phenomenal and deep like a human being," Pitts said.

"King Kong, no matter what version you watch the one thing you notice about King Kong is the eyes," Henderson said. "So you watch King Kong and no matter what he's doing, whether he's destroying things or he's looking at whatever actress, his eyes, there's something behind them there's."

While many critics loved the production, even those who wrote mixed reviews heaped praise on Pitts' performance, and the artistry and execution of Kong himself.

The show doesn't make history with just technology, but with Pitts herself, who is the first African American to play this role.

"For a lot of people of color there's always been this sort of disconnect with the story that some people could pinpoint and some people couldn't. I know myself as a little girl. I loved it. And there were moments that made me feel really weird and uncomfortable and I couldn't figure out why until I got a bit older and I noticed some sort of racial undertones that the story is carried," Pitts said. 

"But I think right now, women all over the place are sort of gaining this newfound power and speaking up about what it means to make your own decisions and not rely on anyone else to sort of tell you what to do or who to be and Ann is so unique because she knew this in the 1930s," she said. "This is a black woman who in 1930 decided to say, 'I am my own woman and no one can tell me otherwise.'"

"It's a beautiful thing to see little girls who look like me who want to do this so bad because I know what that feels like to want to be someone of so much importance but feel like you aren't actually enough to be that," Pitts said.