It was an Australian dream of the supreme New York fantasy: King Kong, the story of the gargantuan monkey who dwarfs Gotham City, the terrifying monster ape with the tender heart who clings to the girl as the bullets fly. An extraordinary amount of Australian money (and the particular zeal of Global Creatures’ Gerry Ryan) has gone into turning this tale of gigantism and primitivism and threat — is it a story of the patriarchal animalism of the male, of the horror of different races, of the fear and desire that clings to the idea of the Other? — into a spectacular musical.
As a piece of theatrical illusion, King Kong (watched in our case from the front row) is extraordinary: the heart throbs, the mouth gasps, the spine tingles. The puppetry that animates King Kong is incredibly effective and the most remarkable feature of all is the way this huge baleful beast stares at us with utterly credible — often utterly poignant — eyes. King Kong is the star of this show and he is a thing of wonder and awe and pity. He roars, he gasps, he weeps, and the effect is thrilling.
Daniel Kramer’s production is brilliantly conceived, constantly busy and visually compelling, with dazzling use of rear projections. It will keep any audience going, pretty much on the edge of their seats, though the music sustaining it in pop music mode (but with resounding dashes into electronica) will endear or put off according to taste, but does not belong to the top level of musical drama. There is always plenty to look at and the soundscape matches and reinforces the spectacle thunderously, but this is not a stand-alone score.
King Kong is a dazzling, operatically conceived puppet show, every bit as animatronically astounding as it is cracked up to be, but its music, like its story, is subordinated to the wow factor. The latter, though, is powerful enough to make you wonder if this matters.
That certainly seemed the reaction of the first-night audience, who positively purred with fascination at what they saw. Angela Bishop buzzed about busily with her Channel 10 crew. David Wenham was there because he’d been rehearsing the MTC production of The Crucible. Ted Baillieu could be seen with his beautiful wife Robyn in a stylish, bohemian get-up (dark suit, black shirt) looking a lot more relaxed than he ever did as premier. Magda Szubanski seemed as tickled as anyone. Nadine Garner, fresh from Doctor Blake, was speculating on what the terror factor would be for young kids (high, one suspects).
It’s difficult to get King Kong in perspective because it’s a thrilling show without being a very good musical. It starts slowly with palaver from a very camp impresario (Adam Lyon), and there’s an extraordinary amount of old-style dancing and scampering of a dime peepshow kind that is so archaically sexy that it looks positively fey.
In an odd way the exposition of the book is a bit lame even as the music is declamatory but unmemorable, and Daniel Kramer directs it to within an inch of its life with such ferocious energy that you do almost wish that you were watching him doing Verdi or Wagner. Everything is so wilfully dynamic and electric — the light show dazzles, the monochromatic simulation of Thirties black and white is masterful — but you wish a talent as big and bold as this had an operatic score to work with where the musical drama was sufficient unto itself.
Kramer’s not quite so deft at the famously tricky transitions from speech to song of the musical. This is where the masters like Trevor Nunn and Hal Prince come into their own. But to be fair to Kramer the interplay of dialogue and music he has been handed is not marvellous in the first place.
So expositionally King Kong is a bit underdeveloped, even though the production for much of its length makes this almost irrelevant. The lighting by Peter Mumford, much of it like a sped-up version of the kind of effects we might get in a Des McAnuff production, is superb. Queenie van de Zandt as an older clairvoyant sings with great aplomb and has considerable dramatic authority which the director highlights impeccably. The supporting ensemble looks a bit more lithely attractive in its male aspects than it did with its roxettes-on-E aspect of the girls but at every point, to the edge of bewilderment, this King Kong distracts the eye.
As the lead, the girl the big monkey goes for, Esther Hannaford, is credible and attractive (and sings well in a style that will appeal more to Top 40 lovers than showtune aficionados). It’s fine as far as it goes but you wonder if the performance is big enough for a show like this (not least where everyone has memories of Jessica Lange or whoever). Chris Ryan, too, as the rich-boy-turned-sailor boyfriend, sings and acts well, without being compellingly starry (if you want a counter-example, think of Millsy in Legally Blonde, who really does the trick). And there’s some fine acting from the rest of the cast. Richard Piper is nothing if not big as the kilted ship captain (taking everyone to Skull Island) and he remains compelling, if rather more restrained, as a New York police chief when King Kong has the girl and is overshadowing the city.
He overshadows everything here. The puppetry is one of the miracles of the contemporary theatre (at least comparable to War Horse, though this production is superior at every point — except the central dramaturgical one — to the scratch War Horse we saw here).
It’s a pity, though, given the richness of the spectacle and the deep atavistic familiarity of the story, that the actual death of King Kong was not achieved with a degree more poignancy.
Still, it’s hard to object to a show that growls and stamps and startles with this degree of visual magic and thumping sound. As a musical, King Kong is not what it might be. It’s a far cry from Leonard Bernstein or Stephen Sond-heim — and musically it makes an ordinary show like Elton John’s Billy Elliot look like Gershwin at the height of his powers — but as a bit of theatre or circus or whatever it’s unmissable. Besides, we’ll remember those deep, dark staring eyes long after we’ve ceased to recall a scrap of this show’s music.
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King Kong is at Melbourne’s Regent Theatre, currently booking until October.
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