“KING KONG” the musical — a Broadway style blockbuster? A song and dance spectacular with an exotic story?
No, silly, it’s the gorilla and the girl; pretty well everything else is superfluous.
If there’s anything spectacular about this extraordinary production which officially premiered last weekend in Melbourne, it’s the extraordinary level of collaboration in which technical, theatrical, cinematic, aerial, acrobatic and puppetry skills have been brought together. Peter Mumford’s lighting design is spectacular too, especially in the voyage scenes and the arrival on Skull Island.
But to what purpose?
You can safely discount the technoed-up 42nd Street type chorus lines that dominate the early part of the book, where writer Craig Lucas endeavours to create an American background to the expedition to far-off Skull Island.
Frankly I found most of that tedious and excessive. Did we need both “Brother can you Spare me a Dime” and “I Wanna be Loved by You” (Poop Poop a Doop)? No, the setting is plainly somewhere around the Depression era, signalled by the huge art deco frame to the Regent Theatre’s proscenium arch.
Did we need the introduction of a weirdly-costumed high priestess and prophet of doom, sung superbly by former Canberran Queenie Van de Zandt, to warn us of the hubris in hunting the unhuntable? No, it is implicit in the story.
Did we need Shakespearian phrases like “screw your courage to the sticking place” to make the story sound more archetypal? No, the story of the giant ape’s tenderness for a little girl has long ago entered our cultural memory.
So, the success or failure this mighty Australian world premiere production — one which would need severe trimming to take anywhere outside Melbourne — rests entirely on the capacity of Peter Wilson and the puppeteers to bring creature designer Sonny Tilders’ 6m high silverback gorilla to life.
In my view, they succeed in doing this. The central motif of “King Kong” remains as it has always been, the improbable meeting between a human being and a giant animal.
It’s quite a challenge for Esther Hannaford, playing the tiny Ann Darrow. She roars back at the giant ape, teases him, then tenderly dresses his wounds. The only person in the play who recognises him as a sentient being, it is the character of Ann who gives us a hint of the darker purpose of this story.
Far from being a nice night out at the theatre, as Barry Humphries would say, this is a powerful attack on greed, materialism, selfishness and ultimately on cultural imperialism, as the American film crew take off to “save” the natives of Skull Island and capture their dominant local creature.
There were many major entrepreneurs lurking around the Regent Theatre last Saturday, but as well as the technical problems in transferring this production to Broadway, there would undoubtedly be the need to tone down the underlying thematic content.
And now to the centrepiece of the show, King Kong himself. Seemingly capable of reaching the full height of the proscenium arch and at one stage curling his toes over the edge of the stage in front of a terrified audience, this creature lives and breathes, all the more so because you can see puppeteers holding the strings.
Offstage, using “voodoo” technology, other manipulators work his eyes, his lips, his ears and so on, so that Ann’s rendition of “Full Moon Lullaby” (beautifully rendered by the musicians under the direction of Daniel Edmonds) visibly touches the gorilla and by that time, us, since we are surely on his side.
As planes, searchlights and an utterly irrelevant chorus of Radio City girls attempt to re-create the chaos of gorilla-ridden Manhattan, the real focus belongs to the still point of this turning world—the huge dying King Kong and the little girl he worships.
I for one was totally convinced.