Five years ago in a West Melbourne warehouse, the making of Kong began. A six-metre tall Goliath was being constructed for the stage. Using state of the art technology, this monster of all puppet machines would eventually weigh a staggering 1.1 tonnes and fall under the category of animatronics, where his movements and expressions on stage would be lifelike instead of robotic.
More recently in a pavilion at the Royal Melbourne Showgrounds, the cast of King Kong were going through their final paces before the show’s opening last weekend at Melbourne’s luxurious Regent Theatre. An opening date? Yes. A closing date? No. Interstate performances? No. You’ll have to jump on a plane, because King Kong is only showing in the town where he was built. Why? Make no mistake, the Melbourne run is Kong’s out-of-town tryout for the biggest stage of all and the home of its plot, New York.
King Kong has a Broadway budget, to boot. Depending on who you talk to, somewhere between $25 and $30 million. Mary Poppins in Australia cost $14 million, so this baby is twice the size of any stage show previously conceived in Australia. The road from Melbourne to New York is indeed a long one, so let’s hope King Kong gets a good first run, has bits and pieces altered for improvement and finds a Broadway producer ready to take on what has got to be a sure-fit hit in the city of skyscrapers.
This production is brought to the stage by the Creature Technology Company, the animatronics arm of Global Creatures, who in recent years delivered the hugely successful Walking With Dinosaurs and How To Train Your Dragon arena spectaculars. Behind the scenes, the show is truly international, with a creative team of composers, book writer and designers from both Australia and overseas.
I deliberately waited until the dust had settled and saw King Kong last night, exactly a week after its Melbourne opening. Sometimes, opening night critics are a little too tough on a show, so this opportunity also gives me a chance to review the first reviews, so to speak.
Alas, make no doubt about it, the star of this show is unsurprisingly what Global Creatures boasts is the most sophisticated puppet in the world, Kong himself. Standing taller than your average suburban house, this is quite possibly the most impressive thing I have ever seen on a theatre stage. Awe-struck is probably the most apt description. I have never been more tempted to be naughty and break copyright with my camera phone – all to take a snapshot of the big beast. Of course I would never do so. Besides, the Regent Theatre ushers are on to it, anyway!
As I collected my jaw from the carpet of the Regent Theatre stalls, the sheer grandeur of Kong is simply amazing, and worth the ticket price, alone. The sophistication of his movements and detailed nature of his facial expressions is a sight to behold. Kong is the masterpiece of designer Sonny Tilders and took a team of fifty people an entire year to build. He was created only after two prototypes and four scale models were built before him. The delicate scene of beauty versus beast, with a dying Kong being caressed by a weeping Ann Darrow, is utterly convincing. The audience had been sucked into the magic of theatre, deeply moved by the stage action between a human character and a machine.
But this empathy took a while to get there. It is more than half an hour before Kong makes his first appearance on the stage and the opening scenes lacked any sense of connection between audience and performers. Audiences arrive and wait for the action to determine their place in the story presented before them. Unfortunately, in Kong this is unclear for half of the first act, until Esther Hannaford arrives onstage as Ann Darrow and injects some humour and emotion into the plot, drawing her audience in, who up until now felt left out in the cold. Hannaford, who was hilarious as Penny in a recent Australian tour of Hairspray, is a perfect match for her character, gracefully performing Kong’s love with conviction. Similarly, Chris Ryan in the role of Jack Driscoll and Adam Lyon as Carl Denham were consummate performers with fine voices. The leading three (humans) make a tight ensemble of principal characters.
Stagecraft is the real winner in King Kong. In an age where entertainment = technology and theatre goers are more and more demanding high tech wizardry and visual spectacle in stage blockbusters, Kong delivers in spades. A 27-metre wide LED screen formed the rear scenery for most of the show. Thirteen puppeteers controlled the beast (ten onstage, three offstage). The lighting resembled a Queen concert more than a theatre show, with rows and rows of moving lights. The production comprises more than 500 beautiful costumes, of which the opening number alone boasts 100 of them.
Unfortunately at times, however, the psychedelic backdrop looked more like a screensaver than a theatre setting, while scenes on board the ship suffered from no backdrop at all. Granted, at sea you don’t expect a backdrop, but Skull Island in the distance is better than a blank canvas. In the second act an opportunity was lost when Kong appeared atop the Empire State Building. He sat on what looked like an air conditioning unit (meant to be the building’s peak) with nothing to denote the setting for the audience. Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark on Broadway took full advantage of a New York City skyline in the set, but strangely King Kong does not. All we needed was a couple of symbols to recognise NYC in the 1930s – the Empire State Building, the art deco Chrysler Building, something, anything! Instead we get a lead-in scene with windows projected on a screen. I’m not sure everyone in the audience figured out this was the side wall of the Empire State Building. Ironically, the show’s marketing and even the drink fridges in the foyer used the Empire State and Chrysler buildings, but not the set, itself.
The music in King Kong has already been criticised for being a bit of a dog’s breakfast. I wouldn’t be that harsh, suffice to say its certainly an eclectic mix of songs and styles. When your composers range from Canadian songstress Sarah McLachlan (What’s It Gonna Take, a standout ballad) to 3D from Massive Attack, one is going to hear variety, to say the least. Largely electronic in style, the music was at times overpoweringly loud and did suffer from inconsistencies. Like many shows, the songs were a bit hit and miss.
The problem with King Kong is that the show was built the wrong way around. Like a jukebox musical where the show’s plot is built around a catalogue of existing songs, King Kong is built around the technology behind an enormous beast of a puppet. Granted, the story for this production was always there, but the show’s dialogue and songs pale in comparison to the spectacle of the giant Kong on a theatre stage. Is it a stage musical or another arena spectacular by Global Creatures? Aspects of the show certainly seem like an arena event, slightly out of place in a closed theatre.
King Kong is different and that is definitely one of its draw cards. But because aspects of the show are non-traditional, the audience expects something else. It’s not the first blockbuster to end on a sad note, but certain conventions weren’t nailed. Many times the audience didn’t know when or whether to applaud the performers, resulting in half-hearted (almost insulting) applause from the house. The sombre electronic music at the curtain call was indeed an anti-climax and a strange way to end such a spectacle of a show. When the audience isn’t quite sure the performance has ended until the lights go up, you know something isn’t working as well as it should be.
All in all, King Kong is a little disjointed and will need fixing if it is to go to Broadway. But that’s okay. Spider-Man had the longest run of previews in Broadway history (it seems director Julie Taymor was never satisfied) and several rewrites (even after opening) before they got it right, so these things are not uncommon. Spectacle, it definitely is. The massive Kong has such life-like movements and gestures amongst a cast of humans, truly dwarfed by the beast, yet moving all around him. It may be a long time before we see something similar on a theatre stage again, so if you live locally, King Kong certainly deserves your attention.