BWW Interview: Erik Lochtefeld Takes His Lumps in a Jaw-Dropping KING KONG
Erik Lochtefeld has performed with larger-than-life actors throughout his considerable career on stage and the small screen. But none was as scene-stealing or enigmatic as the 20-foot-tall, 2,000-pound marionette pounding across the stage in eight performances weekly at the Broadway Theatre.
As Lumpy, the kind-hearted soul with a moral compass in King Kong, Lochtefeld is one of the few sympathetic characters in this have-to-see-it-to-believe-it rendition of the original 1933 film classic starring Fay Wray.
"I'm having the time of my life with this production," Lochtefeld said. "It's unlike anything I've ever done. It has its own set of rules because of the immensity of Kong."
This version of the well-known cautionary tale has not been updated per se from the first film or others in its wake (starring Jessica Lange in 1976 and Naomi Watts in 2005), but it has refashioned the lead human role as an indomitable feminist, fresh off the farm, who has come to the Big Apple for fame and fortune.
The fierce go-getter Ann Darrow (Christiani Pitts) meets Carl Denham (Eric William Morris), who is eager to find an ingenue for a film shoot in a land far away from metropolis. Darrow is reluctant at first, but eventually caves to Denham and agrees to sail away to Skull Island for a rendezvous with a mysterious behemoth. Realizing he's found a virtual gold mine, he aims to capture and transport the humongous curiosity to New York for display in front of a well-heeled audience. As you know, this is a cautionary tale.
A muscular crew of operators handles the mechanics of bringing Kong to life. The production was previously staged in Melbourne, Australia, where Stage Kong was designed and built by Sonny Tilders (he's credited as "creature designer" in this production) and the team at Creature Technology.
"As soon as Kong was installed from Australia, he had his own rehearsal space and it was amazing to see what it took to move him," Lochtefeld said. "To me, the ultimate goal is to be able to see him as his own moving, breathing unit. It's incredible to watch from backstage."
Lumpy and Ann become fast friends and he helps her adjust to a ship full of men eager to strike opportunistic gold. She eschews the typical damsel-in-distress screaming and instead, literally roars back to Kong when threatened. He apparently grows fond of the spirited beauty and exudes a trusting mien when Ann tends to his wound from fighting other large scary beasts.
"Lumpy is kind of an outcast, which may have something to do with his visible scars," Lochtefeld added. "In a way he's like Kong, who is also an outsider and victim of his fate. Kong doesn't speak our language but a lot of the moral questions are expressed by my character. It's a classic adventure story with an incredible ensemble."
There's more at play than Beast Meets Girl. "The reason people have connected with this story for so many years is that it's a story of being misunderstood and the wonderment of the wildness in all of us," Lochtefeld said.
The splashy musical really takes off when Kong finally appears on stage, menacing and thrilling, after about 20 minutes. (Vocal arrangements are by Eddie Perfect and Michael Gacetta.) "I've watched a lot of different versions, and my first introduction to Kong was through the Japanese Godzilla movies, which was basically people in monkey suits," Lochtefeld said with a laugh.
The Depression-era original movie spoke to audiences who were desperate and having a hard life. Carl isn't a "twist-the-mustache" villain, Lochtefeld said, because like many at the time, he had made a few bad financial decisions and was urgently seeking a foothold. "Lumpy's been on both sides of the moral equator and probably regrets some of his choices, but that's part of the adventurous spirit of the show," he said.
The mammoth creature mesmerizes the audience with its intricate movements. "When the operators move in sync with one another to move Kong or make sounds it's like watching a ballet," Lochtefeld said. "When I watch Kong from backstage, it seems like a real creature because of the team who make him come alive. I like watching his face because his features are so expressive and humane."
Operators of the beast are clad in black. They scale Kong, move his limbs and hands, and perform strenuous gymnastics that recall the antics of confident base jumpers. "Kong really throws down in the acting department. You forget there are operators inhabiting his every move. They train very hard to stay fit and limber," Lochtefeld said. "We all do."
Audiences have been wildly enthusiastic, especially when there are school kids screaming in the balcony. "It's different from show to show, and we love it when people scream when Kong first enters," Lochtefeld said. "Those 800 kids went insane when he arrived." And continued being vocal throughout the show, especially enjoying the battle scenes between Kong and a 40-foot python.
Kong runs through the unpeopled jungle, foreshadowing his doomed failed escape through the streets of New York before scaling the newly constructed Empire State Building.
Kong leaps, disappears, clutches Ann in his massive hand and seems to defy gravity. "Some people take a few seconds to take in what they're witnessing," Lochtefeld said. "It's a visceral reaction, and when they yell, it's fun for us onstage."
It's a complicated show: mechanical elements dove-tailing with sound and scenic production. At times music pulsates like a communal heartbeat echoing the primal fear of the beast. And some audience members.
"Music had to be set and tracked and rhythms had to be timed within seconds to have all the motions be in sync," Lochtefeld said. "Safety has always been the No. 1 priority," he said. "Knock on wood no one has been hurt."
Lochtefeld, originally from Chicago, moved to East Concord, Mass., while in school. He was drawn to sports in the Midwest, but his interests veered in another direction when he learned that his East Coast school played something called lacrosse. He was not a fan.
"My mom forced me to go to a town audition for a kids show. I really didn't want to go," he said. "But I ended up making great friends and learned what a great thing it is to have empathy. Each new cast becomes another family," Lochtefeld added.
Lochtefeld listens to the show's music on his downtime, and enjoys podcasts, including Fresh Air and The New York Times podcast The Daily.
"Spotify is so amazing. Sometimes I put on music from the '30s and there's a particular energy that comes from the songs. Times were tough then but there's an uplifting life force from the music which reflects the energy of our show," he said.
"I love King Kong and love talking about the show. It's a spectacle, not a traditional musical. It's more of an experience.
"We have a broad base and I'd love to see teenage boys in the audience," Lochtefeld said. "Kids love Kong but teenaged boys can get really jazzed."
King Kong is playing at the Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway, at West 53rd Street. King Kong is written by Jack Thorne; score composed and produced by Marius de Vries; songs by Eddie Perfect; scenic and projection designer, Peter England; lighting designer, Peter Mumford; sound designer, Peter Hylenski; aerial movement director, Gavin Robins; orchestrations by Christopher Jahnke; and directed and choreographed by Drew McOnie.