King Kong Live on Stage (Regent Theatre, Melbourne)
By: Devon B. on December 1, 2013 | Comments
King Kong Live on Stage (Regent Theatre, Melbourne)

There's been a battle building lately. Local band The Bennies were ramping up to be the biggest thing to hit Melbourne since Gor Gor, but just as they were poised to triumphantly rule the city another big thing was announced, King Kong: The Musical. The show opened and stunned a lot of people, and this reaction intensified the rivalry to the point that on their new album Rainbows in Space The Bennies vehemently declare, perhaps with a smidge of inspiration from Denzel Washington, that King Kong ain't got shit on them. I've seen The Bennies live several times, so I decided I best check out King Kong and decide for myself who is truly Melbourne's entertainment royalty.

King Kong is the story of filmmaker Carl Denham who just wants to make a simple documentary about the inhabitants of the mysterious Skull Island. Denham is particularly interested in the island's monarch, a beast the likes of which the world has never seen…except for the people that actually live on Skull Island, of course. Denham is forced by his studio to include a blonde woman in his film, and he recruits a down-on-her-luck lady named Ann Darrow. She causes a stir when she first reaches the ship that will take everyone to Skull Island, and the First Mate, Jack Driscoll, is extremely hesitant to allow a woman on board. The crew, including a token Australian who seems to have escaped from an 80s Paul Hogan movie, set sail for the island and soon Darrow finds herself betrothed to the beast.

When King Kong was first announced my immediate response was that I'd go as long as it was funny. The thing is, I'm not a fan of musicals. I love some humorous musicals like The Blues Brothers and Happiness of the Katakuris, but I always struggle with more earnest stories that involve singing and dancing. I've never been to a professional stage musical before, but if King Kong is anything to go by then I won't be buying a season pass any time soon. I enjoy a good spectacle set to song, hell Eurovision is a cause for celebration in my house, but most of the tunes in King Kong are forgettable, despite providing an excuse to incorporate far more sexily dressed dancing ladies than the story normally would require. The only song that hit the level of ridiculousness I wanted was the promo ditty the Denham character sings to drum up interest in his new show, a silly number that features a dancing Santa and his elves, girls in gorilla chest vests and a funny outline of Kong's biggest selling points. Later on there is another fun little moment in an otherwise dull song where Kong does some, possibly unintentional, harmonising, but after listening to King Kong for over two hours my partner and I exited the theatre singing that since we were in the CBD we should be able to ride our bikes wherever we fucking liked. Therefore on the music front The Bennies are the clear winners.

What's less clear is whether King Kong is a success as a bit of theatre because this was my first time seeing a professional musical production so I don't have anything to compare it to. The story has been streamlined to get the plot moving quicker, but the increased speed just allows more time for songs, because one thing about musical theatre is evidently there're a lot of songs in these things. The story is obviously based on the original film, but it's closer in tone to Peter Jackson's remake. The guy playing Denham sounds and acts like Jack Black, which I guess makes since because Black is better known for his signing than Robert Armstrong was, and I'd say this Darrow is closer to Naomi Watts than Fay Wray. Driscoll is back to being a seamen, and thankfully the Jamie character is gone, but most of the time I was reminded of the 2005 film more than the 1933 one, and not just because the musical was in colour. King Kong's production values seemed high, with set pieces and characters popping up quickly and disappearing discretely, keeping the stage busy and lively when it needed to be. The visuals get positively overwhelming when the Skull Island natives take the stage, because the island seems to have been settled by TISM fans that pass the time trying to recreate that band's most ostentatious costumes. That was pretty amusing, but it wouldn't be enough to justify the ticket price. Fortunately King Kong has one major thing going for it…

…and that's a giant fucking Kong puppet! Kong looks at his best when he first appears because the dimmer lighting in that sequence makes it look like he has hair, but even once he's seen clearer the puppet and puppetry is nothing short of a marvel. Animatronics, people power and loud sound FX combine brilliantly to bring Kong to life, and I sat in awe every time Kong was on stage. If I wanted to focus on how the puppeteers were working Kong I was able to, but most of the time they blended in so well that it was easy to forget they were even there. The Kong portion of the Universal tour positively pales in comparison, especially since on the Universal tour Kong doesn't fight anything. During the intermission I had other patrons seated near me worried that for the story's theatre rampage Kong would come out in to the audience à la Peter Pan, but that sadly didn't happen. I guess that would've been too difficult to do, but just because something's impractical doesn't mean I can't hope for it. Until The Bennies take a page out of GWAR's book and start battling giant monsters on stage, this is an obvious point for King Kong.

The Bennies are an awesomely fun band and King Kong has an awesome puppet, so for me it's a draw, but the real winners will be anyone smart enough to see both. Like me and my team. Team Bennie Kong. King Kong would have been bland without its giant ape, but then who would be stupid enough to make a musical of King Kong without Kong? Kong turns an otherwise unengaging show into a remarkable feat, and short of capturing a live 25 foot tall gorilla and training him how to harmonise, this is the best I could've hoped for. I wasn't really sure how to score King Kong because like I said I don't really have any basis for comparison, but then I realised it met the only criteria I would ever care about in a stage production of this story: It has a huge gorilla. I can't in good conscience give the show a perfect score, but if I could rank just Kong himself he'd get a five out of five because I was utterly transfixed whenever he was on stage. At times it almost seemed like I was genuinely in the presence of the mighty Kong, and that's a dream come true for my three year old self.

King Kong Live on Stage

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