Christiani Pitts: She’s Not in King Kong Just to Do a Blood-Curdling Scream
By: Ellis Nassour
November 9, 2018: The 20-foot, 2,000 pound silverback King Kong is no match for Christiani Pitts, the beautiful young actress making a big leap to stardom playing the coveted female lead, Ann Darrow, in the Broadway megamusical King Kong. Of her first leading role, she says, “It’s been an incredible journey after having been in only one Broadway show. I’m so excited, I can cry, In fact, I’ve pretty much cried every day.”
Pitts states she’s “unbelievably fortunate and blessed. It’s one of the most incredible gifts from God I’ve received. I’m overwhelmed with how happy and grateful I am. It’s the only way I can describe it!”
Pitts was a virtual force of nature after she worked her way up in her first Broadway show from ensemble to co-star as Jane, the gal from the other side of the Italian-dominated neighborhood along Belmont Avenue in A Bronx Tale, the musical adaptation by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater of Chazz Palminteri’s solo play and film. Now, she’s standing tall in the coveted role of Ann Darrow, the role made famous onscreen by the never-forgotten Fay Wray in a huge cast of 35 actors and puppeteers.
Along her magical journey to the Broadway Theatre, “something I couldn’t even imagine a mere few months ago, there’ve been rehearsals, rehearsals, rehearsals. I’ve never worked harder or learned more.” One fun sequence in the musical is when Christiani/Ann is ask to do the type of blood-curdling scream made famous and infamous by Wray in the 1933 film. It’s take a while.
Christiani, in her late-20s, has been garnering standing ovations not only for her performance and stunning vocals but also seemingly incredible powers. In a salute to the #MeToo movement, the gigantic, fierce beast [you don’t have to be in the theatre to hear the bombastic roar that literally shakes the walls!] is no match for this female who, in one of the show’s iconic moments, calms Kong into a peaceful sleep with a lilting lullaby.
She’s on the Broadway Theatre’s stage so much, she never makes it to her dressing room until intermission; and in Act Two, it’s non-stop. Still, Christiani describes what she’s doing as fun, especially working around the large ensemble of puppeteers. “They have a skill set unlike anything I’ve ever seen. They have to be hyper-focused for safety reasons, but they make it all look so easy.”
“When we first saw Christiani,” says lead co-producer Carmen Pavlovic, “she blew us away. She embodies everything we aspired to in creating a female protagonist who is relevant in 2018. She is an Ann Darrow for our time – plucky, courageous and the master of her own destiny.”
Christiani’s opening number in King Kong is the rousing “Queen of New York,” and it appears she may be on her way to becoming just that.
The role of Ann Darrow has been much expanded to showcase Christiani’s strengths. For instance, when the shifty film producer Carl Denham, played with great gusto by Eric William Morris (Coram Boy, Mamma Mia!), who trying to tame the untamable in a film with a Skid Row budget and then decides to introduce him to Broadway, Christiani/Ann stomps on his megalomaniacal ego to do battle royal. She attempts to stop him from the destructive path he’s on. She’s not there just to do a blood-curdling scream.
“The role requires me to be all the things I’ve been working for since I was a child,” says Christiani.“ The singing, acting, and athleticism is all I’ve ever wanted to do. It’s a role I’ve been preparing for since grammar school. Broadway’s is every actor’s dream, and, oh my, I’ve been twice-blessed. It’s really insane. I’m still pinching myself to make sure it’s real.”
King Kong, the musical, is adapted by Jack Thorne, the Olivier- and Tony-winning playwright behind Harry Potter and the Curse Child. Music is by Grammy-winner Marius de Vries (music director, upcoming Moulin Rouge, La La Land) and Australia’s Eddie Perfect (the soon-to-be stage adaptation of Beetlejuice). Directing is Brit Drew McOnie (West End’s Strictly Ballroom and an Olivier-winner for In the Heights), who’s also responsible for the show’s quite unusual and dizzying choreography that appears to be heavily-influenced by Martha Graham and the most famous choreographer of cheerleader squads. David Caddick (The Phantom of the Opera) is music director.
“King Kong is an epic story, but also a really intimate one, about the limits of ambition and the cages we’re put in,” states Thorne. “Thankfully, in Christiani and Eric we’ve two remarkable talents who lead our incredible and multi-talented company.”
The mammoth animatronic Kong, designed by Sonny Tildlers, with movement-directed by Gavin Robins, is created by Melbourne, Australia by Global Technology (How to Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular). Kong is controlled by 16 microprocessors. He has over 45 driven axis of movement. Fibreglass gives body shape. Inflatable air bags are patterned into his chest. The arms and legs are built on high pressure inflatable tubes. The 90’ x 27’ LED screen, Broadway’s biggest, takes audiences on a realistic journey to New York of the 1930’s and on rolling seas to mysterious, uncharted, and aptly-named Skull Island.
There are some very strong, memorable moments in King Kong, as when the skyscraper ape decides to check out unsuspecting folks in the front rows. “No one’s expecting that,” laughs Christiani. “They quickly get so caught up in the show that they think he’s real.”
Christiani is beginning to feel that way, too. “I thought the more time I spent with Kong, the less realistic he’d be, but it’s just the opposite. I see little nuances on his face that weren’t there before. Then, then there’s the way he moves and the way he communicates with me. Kong feels like a living, breathing creature. It’s quite entrancing. Kong is always portrayed as a menace, but he’s not a villain.”
She’s thought of that moment in the classic film when Ann Darrow is lifeless in Kong’s hand, “but it’s different for me. I get to be next to Kong. I feel small, but I feel like an equal. It’s incredibly empowering! Nothing about him is not alive. He’s fully alive and makes me want to be a better and stronger actress because I have to be aware of what’s happening and be so present. It’s a beautiful challenge.”
She’s the daughter of author and TV journalist and anchor Byron Pitts (ABC’s Nightline). Her mother is an Georgia-based event planner. “With three older sisters, two older step-brothers, and a younger brother, we were like the Brady Bunch.” For a while, she and an older sister had a singing group. “She lost the passion for it, but it only grew in me. By the time I decided I was going into theater, the family wasn’t exactly shocked. It was like, ‘Finally!’”
She began singing at age eight in her church choir in Georgia and continued to sing when the family relocated to New Jersey. By age 11, she was making recordings and appearing in plays. Right out of high school, she was cast in a production of Tim Rice and Elton John’s Aida; then, in her sophomore year of college, she was cast in the musical as Aida’s servant Nehebka. She also began writing screenplays, which had to take a backseat when she began going the audition route in New York, and when cast in A Bronx Tale. “I love the creative process of writing and it’s something I’ll pursue when things aren’t so hectic.”
In 2014, in her junior year of college, Christiani says, “I had my first really awesome theater experience performing in Rent.” She lost a longtime friend and the Jonathan Larson musical “helped me heal. It was a turning point for me. Theater was my church, my therapy. Now, I’m not putting on shows in our living room. I’m on Broadway, singing and acting and getting paid to do it. Life is wonderful, isn’t it!”
King Kong production photographs by Matthew Murphy and Joan Marcus