One of the great movie monsters of all time is set to become one of the great stage monsters. The brand-new, Australian-made, multi-million dollar musical theatre production of King Kong opened Saturday 15 June at Melbourne's Regent Theatre.
The simian star of the show – the Kong – makes a stunning impression.
Who would have thought a mountain of foam, fibreglass and wire could compel such sympathy?
As the story's sleazy Broadway hype man says, "Seeing is believing." And you really do have to see it to believe it.
His size alone is formidable. Kong stands a massive seven metres, or 40 times the size of a regular silverback gorilla, and is manipulated by a veritable shadow army of onstage and offstage puppeteers, dominating the stage and dwarfing the cast.
But more impressive is the spirit of the thing. Among his handlers are the so-called "voodoo" puppeteers who work backstage controlling Kong's facial expressions. The highly plastic lips and brows and nostrils together with well-researched body language and the regular heaving of his huge lungs make him a powerfully affecting dramatic presence, more so even than the piteous puppet nags of War Horse.
It's the terror and wonder of Jurassic Park meets the strange romanticism of Gorillas in the Mist, except it's happening right there in front of you, on stage.
And it's a royal triumph for Global Creatures, the production company behind the arena spectaculars Walking with Dinosaurs and How to Train Your Dragon. After Kong, there can be no doubt that they lead the world in combined animatronics and live-action puppetry.
At one point ‑ the quiet eye of the ape's stormy rampage through New York ‑ Kong leans out over the audience, tasting the air. Even under such close scrutiny the sense of some secret, magic, animal existence is sustained, even amplified.
But while the main attraction, Kong, is a brilliant success, the rest of the show is at best still in development.
They stick fairly close to the original story. Unscrupulous documentary maker and ambitious showman Carl Denham journeys to the last unexplored place on earth, Skull Island, searching for the legendary King Kong. Along for the ride are starlet-to-be Ann Darrow and man-of-action Jack Driscoll. Driscoll falls for Ann, but he's not the only one. Enter Kong.
Ann is snatched by the god-like ape. Driscoll rescues her and Kong is captured, taken back to New York to be exploited by Denham as a Broadway attraction. Then it's Kong's turn to escape.
It's wonderfully flexible material that can be sliced and diced in any number of ways, giving emphasis to different themes and morals. American director Daniel Kramer tries to cut it all possible ways at once in a tectonic mash of genres, from depression-era romance, to techno-horror, to hectic Broadway pastiche, to consumerist dystopia, to monster-movie madness, to, at its best, beauty-and-the-beast melodrama.
It also shows evidence of much last-minute chopping and changing, with stylistic faults opening up between scenes, awkward transitions, hollows and lulls. All in all, one gets the sense that perhaps they're trying too hard to please too many.
The dominant aesthetic combines a kind of New York art deco with futuristic digital noise, effected by a massive wrap around video screen at the back of the stage and a barrage of laser lights. It is gleefully anachronistic and the stylised Kong looks right at home.
The score is similarly eclectic, a mix of modern Broadway pop, power ballads and big-beat electronica.
Esther Hannaford as Ann Darrow is an angelic complement to Kong. Her several tender scenes with the King of Skull Island, and especially her final scene on top of the Empire State Building, are clear highlights. Perhaps the full-throated Celine Dion-style ballad 'A Simple Prayer' isn't really her thing, but 'Full Moon Lullaby' is a true heart-breaker. Adam Lyons plays Denham and carries the show through many of its more confused moments. It's a charismatic performance, and he shows off a tremendously versatile voice – Ol' Dirty Bastard one minute, Caruso the next. Chris Ryan is Driscoll, vocally a bit lost in all the excitement but nonetheless a dashing figure, pairing well with Hannaford. Cabaret star Queenie van de Zandt sings Cassandra, an odd, dramatically peripheral role, but she makes a powerful contribution with the anthemic 'Rise'.
A very fine chorus also has its several moments. Traditional show tune 'I Wanna be Loved by You' sounds like it has gone through the wash with Bow Wow Wow, while the Avalanches offer a perverse though rather wonderful take on 'Get Happy'. The choreography is always energetic but, in comparison with the hulking Kong, does appear to lack a convincing senes of mass.
Just before the curtain falls for interval, Denham ostentatiously declares that "this show is going to Broadway". And perhaps it will, with a few adjustments, for this puppet monarch is surely one of the most incredible visions ever seen on a Melbourne stage.
Read Time Out's interview with star of the show, Esther Hannaford