Construction runs around the clock at the Regent Theatre for <i>King Kong</i>.

Construction runs around the clock at the Regent Theatre in preparation for King Kong.

DUST rises from the crater that used to be the Regent Theatre's orchestra pit. Hundreds of seats have been ripped from the floor and piled into the foyer. There are holes in the ceiling and giant rigs wedged into the Juliet boxes. Even the stage is gone.

''We've practically dismantled the place,'' says Richard Martin, technical director of the forthcoming mega-musical King Kong. ''When we explained our plans to management, their mouths fell open.''

With most stage shows, sets and props are installed two weeks before the opening. With King Kong - due for its world premiere in June - the process will take an unprecedented six months.

The monster gorilla starts to come together.

The monster gorilla starts to come together. Photo: Simon Schluter

Construction runs around the clock, with two teams of 30 doing 12-hour shifts. Staff have been kicked out their offices; their workspaces now housing heavy machinery. The backstage fly system and most of the rigging have been removed. And in place of 500 plush velour seats, a huge platform covers half the ground floor.

''This is our construction site,'' Martin says. ''What we're building is so big that we can't assemble it on stage. We had to get our engineers to check that the venue could hold the actual weight. This is more akin to a stadium rock concert.''

King Kong is literally the biggest stage show in Australia's history: 140 tonnes of props and machinery. A colossal LED screen - nine metres high by 27 wide - is coming from China. Many backdrops are being built in New York because ''only the Americans are accustomed to building scenery on this scale''. Then there is the eponymous star of the show: a six-metre, 1.2-tonne silverback gorilla brought to life by complex animatronics, hydraulics, 11 on-stage puppeteers and three off-stage controllers.

A scale model of King Kong, displayed at the launch of the Regent Theatre's new musical. Click for more photos

On like Kong: the making of a monster

A scale model of King Kong, displayed at the launch of the Regent Theatre's new musical. Photo: James Morgan

  • A scale model of King Kong, displayed at the launch of the Regent Theatre's new musical.
  • A computer-generated image from Global Creatures' upcoming production of King Kong.
  • The stop-motion ape of the original King Kong reached his classic demise in 1933.
  • A 3D computer model of Kong.
  • Carmen Pavlovic is optimistic about the musical's prospects.
  • Esther Hannaford stars as Ann Darrow.
  • Nintendo was accused of aping the gorilla's style with its Donkey Kong.
  • Naomi Watts fell into the digital clutches of Peter Jackson's Kong.
  • The ambitious set design is spectacularly under way.
  • An artist works on King Kong's head.
  • The principal cast of King Kong, from left, Richard Piper, Adam Lyon, Esther Hannaford, Queenie van de Zandt and Chris Ryan.
  • The poster for Peter Jackson's King Kong.
  • Poster for the original King Kong, starring Fay Wray.

At present, staff are putting the finishing touches on him in their West Melbourne workshop. ''Where you're standing,'' Martin says, ''is where the front row will be when we re-install the seats. And Kong is going to come right out and loom over the audience.''

Martin has replaced the stage with one that rises two metres and oscillates. This necessitated moving the orchestra to a room overlooking Collins Street, from which the sound will be piped through speakers.

''We'll have three lifts and a big, automated staircase in there,'' he says, pointing at the dusty pit. ''We had to jackhammer out some of the concrete to make it all fit.''

<p>

Of course, everything will be returned to its rightful place once the production ends. ''Most theatre owners would have said, 'Go away','' Martin concedes, ''but the Regent has been fantastic. They understand the importance of this style of show. If it's successful, it could lead to more world premieres in Melbourne.''

Martin has achieved many impressive stage feats in his 34 years as a technical director. He made Mary Poppins fly and persuaded safety inspectors to let him ''drop a half-tonne chandelier over the audience'' of Phantom of the Opera. Still, he has never worked on a show in which construction is so extensive that there is no room in the venue for the cast to rehearse.

''They're all out at the Melbourne Showgrounds,'' he chuckles. ''They decided early on there would be no 'representations' of the gorilla; no cardboard cutouts or silhouettes. Everything is very big and realistic.''

Ann Darrow, played by Esther Hannaford, will even be swept up in the ape's giant paw.

And the climactic scene in which Kong falls from the Empire State Building?

''Yes, he actually falls on stage,'' Martin says. ''There are obviously some wonderfully impressive technical moments, but nothing will beat the moment that great gorilla drops in on them.''

mlallo@fairfaxmedia.com.au