This Week at the East River Park Bandshell: A Hip Hop Version of King Kong

"King Kong" at SummerStage. Photo by Michael Seto/City Parks Foundation.

Beginning this evening,  King Kong comes to Summerstage at the East River Park bandshell.   A few days ago, we spoke with the creators of this irreverent version of the classic story.

"King Kong" at SummerStage. Photo by Michael Seto/City Parks Foundation.
“King Kong” at SummerStage. Photo by Michael Seto/City Parks Foundation.

The City Parks Foundation commissioned Randy Weiner, best known on the Lower East Side as a partner in “The Box” and theatrical director Alfred Preisser for a hip hop rendition of King Kong, set in the Bronx in 1978.  Here’s the premise: the Gold Brothers, desperate to save their failing R&B label, go in search of Kong, “the most talented (musical) artist alive” in a “mystic place” that has been “cut off from the rest of civilization by the East River to the south and the Cross Bronx Expressway to the north and enshrouded in the fog of a thousand apartment building fires set by absentee landlords.”  The Gold Brothers “hire a beautiful secretary, Faye Wellington, and go off to capture this force of nature in order to profit from Kong’s gifts and share his music with a world desperately in need of inspiration.”

The production, which has already played in several other city parks, is meant to be amusing and lighthearted and to engage diverse audiences that typically turn out for SummerStage shows.   During a phone interview, Preisser said the goal in writing King Kong – in which Jewish record executives find themselves in the Bronx – was to illicit “joy and laughter” and, perhaps, “better understanding” of different cultures.   There are obvious challenges in presenting a complex show (including song, dance and comedy) at multiple outdoor venues, but Weiner said the early productions have been exciting and gratifying.  While not everyone has been enamored with the end result, he added, “not every (theatrical project) can be taken so seriously… this is a postcard, a tribute to New York.”

Long ago, Weiner established a reputation as “the leading impresario of nontraditional theater.”  That reputation was embellished when he opened “The Box,” the boundary-pushing cabaret and nightlife venue on Chrystie Street with Simon Hammerstein, Richard Kimmel and Serge Becker in 2007.  Some marvel at The Box’s staying power (Lower East Side night spots don’t tend to stay hot for very long), but Weiner said he always envisioned the theatrical space enduring as “a jewel for New York” for many decades, “just like the Moulin Rouge.”

At The Box, and at SummerStage, he said, the objective is the same — “trying to do something creatively that you don’t see elsewhere.”  At other locations, such as Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem, the reaction to the play has been boisterous (in a good way).  Weiner and Preisser are not sure what to expect on the Lower East Side, a neighborhood that, they noted,  “is in an amazing state of flux.”  The production draws from Vaudeville, which of course has its roots in this neighborhood, but Weiner speculated that “the hipsters of the Lower east Side might be a bit too sophisticated” for the genre.  On the other hand, he said, “we took an art form and tried to make it modern… the fun is seeing how the audience reacts.”

King Kong will be performed at East River Park (Grand Street) tonight through Thursday at 8 p.m.  One programming note: the production has strong language.