Music Theatre

King Kong set to roar in Melbourne 2013

Producers today announced cast and creative team of highly anticipated world premiere King Kong, set to open its exclusive Australian season in June 2013 at Melbourne’s Regent Theatre.

Award winning music theatre favourite Esther Hannaford (above) (Hairspray, Once We Lived Here, The Boyfriend) will headline the human cast, playing Ann Darrow, a young woman who has run away to New York to make a new start.

Recent VCA graduate Adam Lyon (above) will play ambitious documentary filmmaker Carl Denham, the man who sets out to make a movie on the last unchartered place on earth.

Hard working Melbourne actor Chris Ryan (Gross Und Klein, Thyestes) is set to play Jack Driscoll, a blueblood seeking a different life on the sea. Theatre People readers with long memories may remember Ryan from local Melbourne productions such as Whitehorse’s Sweet Charity and Dandenong’s Into the Woods.

Highly experienced stage actor Richard Piper (Queen Lear, Billy Elliot) will play the grizzly Captain Engelhorn. Popular music theatre and cabaret star Queenie van de Zandt (below) (Oliver!, The Full Monty) is also on board as new character Cassandra, the wanderer.

The biggest star of all, of course, will be the one tonne, six-metre tall puppet of King Kong himself. Following their smash success with Walking with Dinosaurs and How To Train Your Dragon, Global Creatures have been working on the five year project of bring Kong to life on stage.

Global Creatures CEO Carmen Pavlovic (above) consulted with production designer Peter England to find a story that suited Global Creatures’ animatronic capabilities. Together they realised that King Kong was the modern myth they were looking for. Says Pavlovic, “As I really got to think about it I became more and more captivated by the fact that it was a love story, and I could see musical possibilities in that very strongly.” England agreed: “I think the reason the story was attractive from the start was that it had a humanity to it.” Creature designer Sonny Tilders was just as taken with the idea to bring King Kong to the stage.

Using principles seen in The Lion King and War Horse, Kong will be manipulated by visible puppeteers on stage. These 11 puppeteers, led by Puppetry Director Peter Wilson, have been named “The King’s Men.”  The body will be a chassis with a layer of inflatables – air powered muscles – which give Kong a lightweight body form. Over the top of that are a series of highly sculptured muscle bags that stretch and contract to make it seem like there is a whole anatomy that lies underneath. “I see him as a giant sculpture,” says Tilders, “Like your classic Greek form. His proportions are absolutely pushed.”

International opera and theatre director Daniel Kramer (above) came on board, as the idea for the production shifted from an arena to a proscenium arch theatre. Kramer felt that the issue of designing the puppet came down to scale. “We felt there could be no tiny King Kong climbing on the Empire State, no giant hand for one scene, no paper cut-outs. The challenge was to create a three-dimensional character whom we followed from beginning to end – a being who both Ann and we the audience could fall in love with.”

Craig Lucas, who wrote Broadway hit The Light in the Piazza, was chosen as bookwriter. The script is based on the novelization of the original 1933 movie of King Kong, used with the blessing of the Merian C. Cooper estate. Movie fans will be well aware of the 1976 Dino de Laurentiis and 2005 Peter Jackson versions of the story. Countless comics spinoffs and even theme park rides have come and gone across the decades but this will be the first musical version of the tale.

The music for the show is set to be a mix of standards from the 1930s and new compositions. Marius de Vries, who created the soundtracks of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge, will create compose and arrange music, drawing on the songs of artists such as Sarah McLachlan and The Avalanches.

Further luminaries in the production team include multi-award winning choreographer John O’Connell (Moulin Rouge, Strictly Ballroom, Enchanted) and Tony Award-winning costume designer Roger Kirk (The King & I, The Boy from Oz).

O’Connell has revealed the musical numbers planned to date:

  • A 12-minute full company opening number set to the classic “I Wanna Be Loved By You”, detailing Ann’s arrival in New York City and Carl’s search for a leading lady. A period 1930s piece with flavours of Beyoncé.
  • A burlesque number in a NY club using chairs, à la Bob Fosse.

  • Ann’s fantasy on the boat where she is put through a makeover: a mix of Broadway meets Lady Gaga.
  • A Pina Bausch-esque moment during the Skull Island ritual.
  • A Fred and Ginger-style number between Ann and Jack as they are falling in love; set to minimal music.
  • A second act opening with the full company, in “Thriller”-esque mode, as Carl Denham lures them off the streets and into his Kong extravaganza.
  • A Ted Shawn (a pioneer of American modern dance)-inspired abstract dance overlaid with a Broadway Rockettes flavour to open Carl’s show.

Designer Peter England has been working on the challenge of representing the height of 1903s New York:  “We’re capturing the spirit of New York 1933, but we’re not doing a historical museum piece; we’re injecting the production with a healthy dose of modern theatricality.” England took inspiration from the iconic 1930s photographs of construction workers up on I-beams when the city’s most famous and tallest buildings went up (the Chrysler Building, the Rockefeller Centre and, of course, the Empire State Building). “Those photos are rich with the spirit of industry that was so particular to NYC during the Great Depression,” says England. “They also conjure up fearlessness and danger. Whilst the rest of America struggled, somehow a towering Empire was built on Manhattan Island.”

With locations ranging from a theatre, to the loading docks of NYC, to a boat on an ocean, to a jungle, to the top of a mountain, to a Broadway theatre, to the streets of NYC and then, of course, to the top of the Empire State Building, a production of King Kong is always going to come with enormous challenges. For England this is where he finds the greatest joy in his work: “To create for an audience some simple, bold gestures that clearly tell them where they are, that thrill them as to how they spectacularly got there and at the same time have the power and epic proportions worthy of such a gigantic legend – this is what I love so much about stage design.”

The opening night of King Kong is 13 June 2013, with previews from May 2013. Tickets, ranging from 60 – $129, available from Ticketmaster.

Photos: Simon Parris

This article published on Theatre People 6 October 2012.

2 replies »

  1. I read that there will be shows only in Melbourne. I wonder if this is a marketing issue. We live in NZ and will be in Sydney during May/June 2014… any chance of King Kong will be played there?
    We are travelling with another couple and we are all celebrating our 40th wedding anniveraries. If King Kong isn’t going to Sydnay do you know what shows are planned during this time in Sydney..

    • Hi Jane, thanks for your comment. I know what you mean in that very often the claim “only in Melbourne” etc is marketing hype but I must say that I believe the producers in this case. It is a massive production, and the theatre was actually occupied by the producing team for about 6 months before opening to get it all ready. They certainly could it afford to do this everywhere.
      I believe that May/June 2014 in Sydney will give you a couple of great choices – The Lion King at the Capitol Theatre and Strictly Ballroom at the Lyric. Watch out for more details as these shows approach.
      Happy Anniversary for next year!

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