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Stage Keeping King Kong alive

November 25, 2018

For Khadija Tariyan, it was love at first sight.

She and the other performers for the new $35 million musical were assembled in the mezzanine of the Broadway Theatre where they were to meet the show’s star. As the curtain rose on the stage below revealing him, Tariyan burst into tears as the rest of the cast cheered, whooped and hugged.

There was King Kong, a massive 2.1-ton puppet — 20 feet tall in full fury — moving toward center stage in a formidable knuckle walk, roaring with basso strength and staring at the cast with those dark, deep, glistening eyes.

Ah, the eyes.

“Once Kiko starts looking at you, it’s over,” says Tariyan during a recent break in rehearsals and referring to the nickname the cast has given the big ape — using the first two letters of each of the title words. “I love Kiko. I really do.”

Tariyan is one of 10 athletic, agile puppeteers who move the giant silverback ape with their bodies, ropes and rigging. Three other puppeteers work the facial and other body movements animatronically from a soundproof “voodoo booth” in the back of the balcony, using joysticks and pedals that operate motors and hydraulics inside Kong’s steel-skeleton body and carbon fiber skull.

Part marionette and part animatronic puppet, King Kong was designed and built by designer Sonny Tilders and his team at Creature Technology Co. in their Melbourne, Australia, workshop where creatures for the arena show “Walking With Dinosaurs” and “How To Train Your Dragon “ were also built.

At 5-foot-3 and 114 pounds, Tariyan is one of two female on-stage puppeteers — who also sing, dance and act as part of the ensemble when Kong is not around. The other woman is Lauren Yalango-Grant, a former dancer from the Connecticut-based Pilobolus dance theater company.

“I can’t wait until we take our bows and we take off our hoods and the audience sees there are two women who have been operating Kiko,” says Tariyan, who received her stage training at Connecticut College in New London.

Tariyan’s mother, Gayle McKinney, grew up in the New London area and later became in the ’70s soloist and the first ballet mistress of Dance Theater of Harlem. McKinney moved to Berlin, Germany, when she married her artist husband Donald Griffith. Tariyan grew up in Berlin but returned to Connecticut during summers to live with her maternal grandparents in the Quaker Hill area of New London. (Her mother now lives with Tariyan’s 101-year-old grandmother in Quaker Hill.)

At Connecticut College, Tariyan studied dance under choreographer David Dorfman. After a stint teaching dance at the college following graduation in 2011, she landed a gig in the off-Broadway production and tour of “Fuerza Bruta,” an interactive sensory spectacle that tapped into Tariyan’s physical grace, strength and arial artistry. That was followed by a gig in “The Wiz Live” and last year’s audition for “King Kong.”

The musical — and no, Kong doesn’t sing — premiered in Melbourne five years ago but since then has been retooled with a new artistic team, led by director-choreographer Drew McOnie. The new script — which follows the outline of the classic 1933 movie —is by Jack Thorne, who received a Tony Award for “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two.” Australian Eddie Perfect wrote the show’s pop songs and the score is by British film composer Maurius de Vries. “King Kong” opened on Broadway Nov. 8.

But there’s little doubt what people will be talking about most about the show. It will be the most impressive display of epic puppetry since “The Lion King” and “War Horse.”

Every single movement by the giant ape is carefully choreographed in painstaking detail.

“I work his back left foot a lot in the beginning of the show,” says Tariyan. “I also help on his elbow and I’m on his back a lot.”

One of the challenges is only just the physical feats demanded of her, but rushing in and out of costume, she says. “We have to be able to get into a dress or suit and tie and be able to dance at the same level as members of the rest of the ensemble. We sing, we dance and we act, too — even the voodoo operators in the booth.”

But manipulating Kong is a special activity that taps into her empathy.

“A lot of times we take on the emotion of what Kiko is going through and we feel what he is feeling,” she says. “The second act really puts me an extremely emotional state, especially when I launch off his shoulder. That’s the time where one of the planes comes to attack him and shoot him down off the Empire State Building. I’m the force that raises his hand against the plane and it feels like I’m the one who protects him.”

Riding on the tall back of Kong is as much a mental challenge as a physical one, she says. “You stand on top of his shoulder and you see how high you are just before the launch and you’re thinking, ‘Well, this is live theater and anything can happen right now.’ If you’re waiting up there too long too many questions start entering your head.”

Then comes her Kong “high.”

“But then you take off into the air and you’re in full flight and you’re now thinking, ‘This is the best thing ever.’ Then you land and it’s like, ‘OK, get me right back on him’.”

For Tariyan, this job is the perfect synthesis of all her talents,

“I’m really moved to be a part of a team that gets to sing, dance, act, but I also get to use my physical strengths and focus,” she says. “This represents so many of my sides and it represents me as a person, too. I feel strong as well as soft, as beautiful as well as tough. I feel that I can be all of that on this stage.”

Frank Rizzo has covered Connecticut arts for nearly 40 years.

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