Play by Play
Patrick Pacheco's inside look at the world of theater, and the crazy people who inhabit it

PLAY BY PLAY: Patrick Pacheco's inside look at the world of theater, and the crazy people who inhabit it

Will the World’s Most Famous Gorilla Nest in Broadway’s Biggest Theater?

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The recent news that a subsidiary of the Ambassador Theatre Group, one of Britain’s leading theater owners, had acquired the Foxwoods Theatre turned the spotlight once again on the 1930-seat venue and its long-term future. Broadway’s largest theater is currently the home of “Spider-man, the Musical,” and all the parties involved in the transfer, from Live Nation to the ATG, made a point of saying they expected the show to continue to run there for years to come. But the expensive production—its weekly operating cost is said to be in the neighborhood of $1.2 million—has shown signs of weakening at the box-office. (Last week, it took in just over $1 million.) While it can recover some of its mojo over the summer and holiday months—it rang in 2013 with a record-breaking weekly take of $2.9 million—there’s no question that the addition of new family shows like “Matilda,” “Kinky Boots,” “Motown,” “Cinderella,” and “Pippin” is stealing its thunder.

So what might be next for this vast barn of a theater? Well, there’s the debut of a lovable ape on the world stage that is drawing the attention of producers and theater owners around the world: “King Kong, the Musical.” The show–featuring a two-story, one-ton title character—begins previews at the Regent Theatre in Melbourne, Australia on May 28th prior to a June 15th bow. Five years in the making, the lavish production has been developed by Global Creatures, the Aussie-based special effects company best known in this country for the touring productions of “Walking with Dinosaurs” and “How to Train Your Dragon.” While those were arena shows, “Kong” is in the tradition of book musicals, as evinced by a creative team which includes Craig Lucas, the American author of the intimate Tony-winning musical “Light in the Piazza,” and director Daniel Kramer, whose previous experience is largely in staging operas in Britain.

“There’s something so moving about watching this little person onstage with this giant creature who’s like a very big child,” Lucas told Variety. “That’s the heart of the story.” He has based his libretto, of course, on the 1933 film classic by Merian C. Cooper, an adventure story about a film crew that voyages from Manhattan to mysterious Skull Island where they discover a giant ape whom they transport back to the States to exhibit as the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” It’s a beauty-and the-beast romance as Kong falls hard for the actress Ann Darrow, a role which made a cultural icon of Fay Wray, and which was subsequently played in film remakes by Jessica Lange (1976) and Naomi Watts (2005).

The cost of the Aussie musical has been reported to be anywhere from $30-$50 million—lead producer Carmen Pavlovic of Global Creatures isn’t saying—and much of the money has been spent in the creation of its furry hero. A fully animatronic Kong has been scrapped in favor of a more expressionistic version worked by over a dozen puppeteers. The costs escalate when you add a crew of 75, a cast of 40, and rights to songs which include 1930s standards combined with new songs by the likes of Sarah McLachlan and Massive Attack’s Robert Del NajaMarius De Vries, who collaborated with Baz Luhrmann on “Moulin Rouge,” is the musical director and Peter England is the production designer.

This all sounds as though Global Creatures is taking on many of the same budgetary, technical and story challenges which faced “Spider-Man” on its troubled and highly-controversial march toward a Broadway opening in June of 2011. Now that Michael Cohl and Jere Harris, the producers of “Spider-Man,” have settled lawsuits and counter-lawsuits with Julie Taymor, the show’s original director, they are intent on bringing down the weekly running costs of the Broadway production. They are also expected to launch national and international productions which they hope will help recoup their staggering $75 million investment.

As for the theater itself, it’s not clear if it will retain the name Foxwoods. (The theater opened in 1998 as the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, after which it was christened the Hilton, followed by the Foxwoods, all the result of a hefty promotional fee paid by the eponymous companies). The Ambassador Theatre Group, which owns 16 venues in the United Kingdom with names such as Apollo Victoria, Lyceum, and  Lyric, has a classier approach. Since their new U.S. venue was created by an architectural mashup of two classic theaters—The Lyric (1903) and The Apollo (1920)—perhaps a more distinguished name is in the offing? Whatever it will be called, the theater is sure to house one of the more risky of Broadway ventures. It won’t be easy to fill nearly 2000 seats on a weekly basis without a major roll of the dice. Proof of that are such expensive failures at the venue as “Hot Feet,”  “Jesus Christ Superstar,”  “Young Frankenstein,” “The Pirate Queen,” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”

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