“Kids, we’re taking this show to Broadway!” That’s the final line of the first act of Australia’s most hotly anticipated musical, Adam Lyon’s Carl Denham promising to bring the titular ape from Skull Island to a New York audience. But he is speaking for the show’s producers, as well, who hope to bring musical theatre’s largest puppet to the Great White Way.
They’ll probably get there. The production is spectacular, in the truest sense of the word. The cast of 50 is mostly made up of dancers, whose acrobatic prowess, crisp timing and perfect steps are on show in several over-the-top jazzy numbers. There are 500 costumes used in the show, 100 of them in the first song alone. The lighting is superb and precise, rippling over each and every one of Kong’s muscles and highlighting the costumes precisely and perfectly. And the sound is at times frighteningly powerful; every time Kong beats his chest, the reverberations echoed in my own sternum.
Let’s get to it: the King himself. Six metres tall with a well-muscled body, animatronic head and a coterie of “King’s men” to manipulate his hands and feet, King Kong is awe-inspiring. The words “jaw-dropping” are clichéd, but when Kong’s massive face first appeared (the rest of him hidden in shadow), my mouth actually fell open. The puppet weighs more than a tonne and comes with its own hydraulics and on-board motor. Kong’s hands can grasp, stomp, run, cradle and soothe.
But the most impressive part is his face, which is fully robotic and manages to convey a wide range of emotions. Kong can be angry, frightened, doting, sleepy, confused and, yes, in love. He probably has the best range of any cast member in the show. When Kong is raging, the audience feels fear of this awesome creature. And when Esther Hannaford’s Ann Darrow sits with him on New York’s most famous skyscraper and sings to him in a quiet moment of contemplation, only those with hearts of stone would not feel a tender sympathy.
But for all its razzle dazzle, King Kong is missing a few elements that separate a good musical from a truly great one. The first is the music. There is no Defying Gravity here, no breakout show-stopping number (the closest is a song near the end called Rise, sung by Queenie van de Zandt, which will not lift your soul but will make you sit up and take notice). The songs are for the most part average, and they do little to advance the plot. They were written independently by different pop stars, and the lack of coherence is jarring. The leads all have excellent voices and they do what they can with the material, but the production relies much more on its spectacular dancers and staging than on powerful music.
The other point that is lacking is the plot itself. Characters are somewhat one-dimensional, and they are given no time to form relationships. Even Darrow and Kong don’t seem to have enough time to form a realistic bond, and as the entire plot from that point forward hangs on their relationship, it is a shame they aren’t given much space to breathe. But that is probably not the fault of this production; neither the 1933 classic film nor the Peter Jackson remake are particularly strong on plot.
But this production was always going to be about the much-ballyhooed King Kong puppet, and he does not disappoint. In terms of theatrical spectacle, King Kong could eat Miss Saigon‘s fully flying helicopter for breakfast. There is always an element of danger when Kong is on stage, and the audience can feel the apprehension the beast engenders. The production is all out, with feathers, sequins, high kicks, laser lights, flying sets, trapdoors, smoke, jazz hands and a well-used screen spanning the entirety of the back of the stage. And the most impressive puppet you are likely to see on stage.
Go see Kong now, or you’ll have to be buy your ticket in USD.
The details: King Kong plays the Regent Theatre, booking until August 18. Tickets via Ticketmaster.