Regent Theatre, Melbourne
Reviewer's rating: 3 and a half out of 5 stars
“This show is going to Broadway, kids!” crows a delighted showman Carl Denham over the temporarily inert form of a giant ape. Like we needed to be reminded. This adaptation of Merian C Cooper’s King Kong story has “For Export” stamped all over it.
Will Broadway buy what the Melbourne-based Global Creatures is selling? Not all of it, maybe. But this show’s centerpiece, a colossal six-metre, 1.1-tonne marionette with an endearingly grouchy animatronic face could prove irresistible. Kong is his own showstopper, after all.
Cooper’s still marvelous 1933 film version of his story adds to the tallness of the order for adaptors. Its arc is huge (Depression era New York to prehistoric Skull Island and back) and its set pieces are as familiar as they are immense.
Undeterred, Global Creatures, director Daniel Kramer, book writer Craig Lucas, choreographer John O’Connell and a diverse team of musicians and lyricists serve up a lot of what we expect (indeed, demand) with a few left-field surprises.
Kramer and production designer Peter England open with a black box framed by a sculpted modernist proscenium. Into it strides Adam Lyon’s flamboyant Denham, whose promise “to make you laugh and touch your soul” soon plays second fiddle to an ambition to shed his Jewish roots and make a mountain of money.
He needs a starlet for his next project, one with hope in her eyes. All he finds in a fast-moving, lurid, Luhrmann-esque sweep of 42nd St scene are spent and cynical Sweethearts on Parade. Enter down-on-her luck Ann Darrow (Esther Hannaford), so hungry she’ll swap her ukulele for a spoonful of soup. She tries to steal an apple instead and in that moment, her destiny changes. You know the rest.
On a voyage sanctioned by the Statue of Liberty herself, audience anticipation is checked with nicely wrought scenes between Darrow and love interest Jack Driscoll.
Chris Ryan, who brings something of the bouncy charm of Gene Kelly to the role and sings like a dream. In the movie, Driscoll’s an ordinary seaman. Here, he’s quite the opposite, an all-American Prince Charming with a steelmaking fortune to fall back on once he gets over himself.
Less successful is the treatment of the Skull Islanders prior to the Kong reveal. The Hollywood ooga-booga depicted in the movie is an obvious no-no, but replacing a supposedly Stone Age tribe with a pack of silvery dancers writhing in video white noise is a curious solution to a problem of taste.
But when Kong emerges from a snowstorm of video projections (Berlin artist Frieder Weiss’s work is prominent throughout), he is everything you hoped he would be. He has weight (accentuated by the use of sound effects), power (thanks to his rappelling puppeteers) and personality.
The scenes between Kong and Hannaford’s delightful Darrow are charming. No dinosaur fights here, but a showdown with a huge electric snake will suffice for the younger members of the audience.
Altogether less convincing is Richard Piper’s dreadlocked Captain Engelhorn (a Highland Scot, of course), who appears to have escaped from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, and the role created for Queenie van de Zandt – that of doomsayer street prophet Cassandra – is superfluous and jarring.
King Kong impresses on many levels. If it falls short, it’s because our expectations are so sky high. As such, it is a showcase for a technology’s potential and also its limitations. It is a novel, intermittently powerful but synthetic spectacle that seeks to be more.
The waves of choral amens in a climax that doubles as a kind of apotheosis for Kong only serves to give the great ape a little bit further to fall.