Hinch Showbiz

King of the Kongs

It’s an idea almost as old as theatre itself. Beauty and the Beast. The beautiful blonde and the anthropoid. We’ve seen it on stage and umpteen times on the screen. 

Heck, I even had crack at it on television, joining the ranks of Eric Baume, Stuart Wagstaff and Bob Rogers as the TV beast surrounded by a bevy of beauties.

But it has never been tried as a musical before.  Not with a giant ape. Nobody would be that stupid, right? Nobody would invest that sort of money, right?

Well, Gerry Ryan and his team -- and about $30 million, five years of planning  and six months of  rehearsals -- have pulled it off.

On Saturday night, they revealed the ultimate beast to the world. King Kong came to Melbourne.

The omnipotent Kong invaded the Regent Theatre. He wasn’t on stage. He invaded the stage. Filled the stage. The mechanical whiz-bangery that brought the Skull Island monster to life meant that the humans competing with him for attention were almost miniaturised.

And the fact that this world premiere has less dialogue than a Tarzan movie made it even harder for them.

Esther Hannaford, in the famous Faye Wray role, tries hard and her voice is great and theatre-filling. But Chris Ryan, as the sort of peripheral love interest, has to resort to a stunning Spiderman crawl up the proscenium to garner any attention.

In fact all the mere mortals are almost incidental – except for the spectacular Busby Berkeley dance numbers.

Everybody knows the story. It’s almost a remake of Androcles and the lion. In the African jungle the blonde befriends the beast, binds his wounds. And when  he is tranquilised, and taken to New York to be exhibited, shackled, P.T. Barnum style in the Greatest Show on Earth, they are reunited. (Luckily, in all the versions, the bestiality aspect gets glossed over.)

It’s not really King Kong – The Musical. More like King Kong – The Spectacle. And it is fitting that the biggest round of applause at the curtain call is for the talented troupe of shadowy acrobats and stuntmen who make Kong come alive to roar, and chest thump and whimper and sulk. I found myself captured by the way this giant puppet had subtle facial expressions and even shrewd eyes.

King Kong’s designer Sonny Tilders and puppeteer Peter Wilson and their animatronics teams have created a masterpiece. You should see it just to glimpse theatre of the future. In fact, I’d like to see it again just to analyse how they do some of it.

I thought that Hairspray was the new greasepaint yardstick for lighting, special effects and computerised sets. Pig’s arse, as John Elliott would say. Hairspray is a Volkswagen, This is a theatrical Rolls-Royce.

King Kong will not satisfy some blinkered musical purists. It’s not Les Mis or Phantom. Not meant to be. Doesn’t pretend to be. It takes musical theatre to another plateau.

But there is a flaw. You’ll find no show-stopping number to hum on your way out of the theatre. And that leaves an awkward, anti-climactic moment, to end the curtain call.

Still, what can you expect? They just shot Bambi's mother.

 My verdict: Relax, Gerry. Australia will go ape over your baby
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