King Kong review

Regent Theatre, Melbourne, June 19


Esther Hannaford and King Kong. Photo: Jeff Busby

Esther Hannaford and King Kong. Photo: Jeff Busby

Set in New York in 1933 during the Great Depression, the story of King Kong has all the romance, tragedy and grand themes to make a wonderful musical. The biggest challenge, you would think, would be to portray the giant gorilla of the title on stage in a convincing way.

In fact, the truly extraordinary animatronic puppetry employed to create the beast is far and away the most successful element in Global Creatures’ new musical theatre show.

We hear him first – a thundering noise as he crashes through the jungle on Skull Island. Lights then pick out his enormous teeth and eyes, and suddenly there he is on stage – all six-metres of him. It’s an astonishing sight. And it only becomes more remarkable as we realise how much more he can do than roar in a terrifying fashion.

Operated by 10 on-stage puppeteers known as the King’s Men and three off-stage operators he looks incredibly realistic, while 15 motors in his face create a range of different expressions. Thus we see him not just snarling and angry but thoughtful, anguished and vulnerable. We relate to him and care about him. He is the most “human” character on stage.

It’s a genuinely remarkable achievement by creature designer Sonny Tilders and his team who prior to this created the dinosaurs and dragons for Global Creatures’ previous arena shows Walking with Dinosaurs and How To Train Your Dragon for Global.

What a shame then that the show surrounding him doesn’t match his magnificence.

The main problem is a weak book. Characters are sketchily presented and not developed, much of the dialogue is banal and clichéd, and there are umpteen gaps in the storytelling.

For example, Act I finishes as sleazy film producer/entrepreneur Carl Denham (Adam Lyon) prepares to leave Skull Island with the captured King Kong in tow, who has protected rather than eaten Denham’s newly discovered starlet Ann Darrow (Esther Hannaford). In Act II we are back in New York and Denham is about to present Kong as “the Eighth Wonder of the World”. As Ann and Jack arrive at the theatre, Ann says that Denham “will kill us” if he finds them there.

None of this has been set up. We haven’t seen anything of Ann sympathising with or comforting Kong on the ship back, and very little of her blossoming romance with Jack Driscoll (Chris Ryan) – here the son of a steel magnate who is working as a sailor because he needed to get away from his father.

We can fill in the gaps in our heads and make sense of most of it but the emotional arc of the show suffers.

Craig Lucas who wrote the book is highly experienced with credits including the Broadway musical The Light in the Piazza. Apparently a fair amount of dialogue was cut during rehearsals, which, if true, would go some way to explaining the problem  – but what we end up with is a structure that feels somewhat out of kilter.

At the heart of the show should be the relationships of Ann and Kong, and Ann and Jack – but we don’t see enough of either for the story to affect us as emotionally as it should.

Yes, it’s touching when Ann rushes to Kong as he stands atop the Empire State Building with planes attacking him but surely, if the show had done its job properly, we should be in tears at this point, in the way that Warhorse had people sobbing. Instead everyone around me seemed dry-eyed.

And what to make of dialogue such as Ann’s “It’s me or the whole city” when we know that she is the one person Kong won’t harm?

Meanwhile, the character given the biggest focus is the unlikable Denham – and unfortunately Lyon, a relative newcomer, doesn’t have the snake-oil charisma to bring him to life.

Meanwhile a prophetess figure – pointedly called Cassandra (Queenie van de Zandt) – could easily be dropped. We don’t need anyone to tell us that heading to Skull Island in order to find and exploit a ferocious beast is likely to end badly.

Stylistically and musically the show is ambitious but a bit of a mish-mash. Clearly the producers and the creative team led by American director Daniel Kramer, want to deliver a musical for the 21st century in a very different mould to a traditional Broadway show and they deserve kudos for that.

There’s certainly no shortage of spectacle what with Peter England’s striking production design, Roger Kirk’s lovely costumes, Peter Mumford’s dramatic lighting, and Frieder Weiss’s busy projections and lasers. What emerges is a show that is sometimes expressionistic, sometimes more conventional; a show that is part cabaret, part musical and part music video.

At times that works brilliantly, notably when Kong is destroying New York and a line of showgirls struggle on with a performance of Get Happy but at other times the different styles sit uncomfortably together.

A dream sequence on board ship in which Ann discovers her inner showgirl, backed by a line-up of scantily clad chorus girls with enhanced bosoms feels out of character for Ann and somewhat gratuitous, while the inhabitants of Skull Island are a strange combination of primitive and space age in a scene with a dance party vibe.

The music is an eclectic mix of original compositions by Marius de Vries, period songs from the 1920s and 1930s like Brother Can You Spare Me A Dime and I Wanna Be Loved by You, and contemporary songs by Massive Attack, Guy Garvey, Sarah McLachlan, Justice and The Avalanches.

Not much of the new music is very memorable. The most powerful song is Rise by De Vries. Van de Zandt, who gives a powerful performance, sings the hell out of it but it does feel strange to have a little-seen, secondary character singing the big 11 o’clock number. Ann’s Full Moon Lullaby (also by De Vries), a reprise of which follows Rise, is a pretty song but no showstopper.

Hannaford and Ryan are lovely as Ann and Jack. Both sing beautifully, have a great presence, and do as much as they can with the material they are given. The ensemble also give it their all.

King Kong has been five years in development and had a rare 19-week rehearsal period but it still needs more work.

As the centerpiece of the production, King Kong himself is truly wondrous. I can’t imagine anyone not marveling at him. His portrayal is a staggering piece of stagecraft and he deserves to be seen on Broadway – but the show could usefully do with further development before braving the Great White Way.

King Kong will only play in Melbourne and will not tour Australia. The show is currently booking through to August 18 and to October 13 for groups.