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'King Kong' climbs his way to the Broadway stage

The gorilla puppet is 20-feet-tall and weighs 2,000 pounds.

Christiani Pitts stars as Ann Darrow alongside a

Christiani Pitts stars as Ann Darrow alongside a giant ape puppet in the new Broadway musical "King Kong, directed and choreographed by Drew McOnie. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

Kong has always been the real king of New York.

The charismatic simian of the large and small screen is adding the stage to his resume now.

“King Kong,” a musical, opened Thursday night on Broadway, featuring a 20-foot tall, 2,000-pound gorilla puppet that is brought to life with the help of animatronics and a cast of on-stage performers.

“A lifetime of hard work & dreaming in equal measure have led to this moment & I can’t believe tonight I officially make my Broadway debut!” director and choreographer Drew McOnie tweeted on Thursday. “So proud of all the monsters who have brought this Beast to BROADWAY!”

The plotline is similar to that of the original 1933 movie, in which a New York City filmmaker takes an actress to remote Skull Island and they encounter the giant ape Kong – who is smitten with the actress, played by Fay Wray. He's then brought to the city in shackles and shown off as the “Eighth Wonder of the World” before he breaks free and scales the Empire State Building. You probably know the rest.

Since then, New York City and King Kong have been inextricably linked.

“You cannot look at that building and not think of King Kong and you can’t look at King Kong and not think of that building,” said Ray Morton, a film historian and author of the book “King Kong: The History of a Movie Icon from Fay Wray to Peter Jackson.”

A 1976 remake with Jessica Lange moved the climactic finale to the World Trade Center.

While the original film portrayed Kong as a monster, later depictions focused on his intelligence and emotions. He is the true victim of the storyline, forced from his home island to serve as a source of entertainment for New York City audiences.

But what is it about his story that has sparked the imagination of filmmakers and artists for 85 years?

“The original story has this very interesting fairy tale quality to it,” Morton said. “It’s a story about this incredibly powerful creature who is captured and ultimately brought down because of his attraction to this female human who connects with him. There’s something very elemental about that.”

Morton said the spectacle of a giant monster with a soul also adds to the appeal of King Kong.

“Because he’s an ape, he has a human quality,” Morton said. “And we connect with that.”

Creating a creature that could show emotion, leap to the top of the Empire State Building and beguile a Broadway audience was nothing short of Herculean.

“It’s the most sophisticated marionette puppet ever made,” said Sonny Tilders, who designed the fiberglass and steel puppet for Global Creatures,  an Australian company that’s been working for nearly a decade and spending millions to get “King Kong” the musical on a New York stage.

Rhaamell Burke-Missouri, who is making his Broadway debut as a member of Kong’s on-stage company, said he was surprised at how realistic the character becomes during the show — especially his expressive eyes.

“They look into your soul,” Burke-Missouri said. “When you look at his face and hear his voice … you’re really blown away.”

With Barbara Schuler

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