Oh King Kong! You gorgeous, sexy, magnificent beast. Your entrance may be the most spectacular thing ever seen on a live stage. Every time you’re on, the audience is yours for the taking, as all around you pale to dull, despite all manner of shiny costume. You are glorious and unforgettable. If only a fraction of the care, love, money and time that went into your creation was put into creating the story you are doomed to play in.
After a couple weeks of previews and rumours, King Kong opened last night.
It’s spectacular. Visually and technically, this is theatre that we haven’t seen before and it has to be seen just to see its amazing pretty.
Peter England’s design, Peter Mumford’s lighting, Frieder Weiss’s projections and Roger Kirk’s costumes are so WOW! that doesn’t matter that it doesn’t feel like New York or that Skull Island screams Tron. The sea of light, the Skelator Statue of Liberty and the fluffy monkey leotards are so sensorially sensational, that it’s easy to forgive the inconsistent style and questionable portrayal of women.
Then there’s the beast created by Sonny Tilders and his team. Kong defies superlatives. With a team of puppeteers (led by Peter Wilson), this amazing critter shows emotion and heart befitting his size; his breath-taking magnificence is the reason alone to see his show. (But if you’re taking young theatre fans who could be scared, it’s worth speaking to someone who has seen it.)
And there are humans to see as well. The huge ensemble is sensational. With choreography by John O’Connell and circus/aerial direction by Gavin Robins, their energy and step-perfection fills the huge theatre as much as Kong’s roars.
Principals Esther Hannaford (Ann, Kong’s love), Chris Ryan (Jack, Ann’s love), Queenie Van Zandt (Cassandra; a prophet) sing beautifully and bring so much more than they are given to their roles. And they are given so little to work with.
Hannaford even overcomes the endless sniffing of Ann (her girly smell attracts monkeys and men of all sizes) and a dream sequence where she realises she’s an ok woman because dream angels in black pvc corsets tell her she’s hot and sing, “We don’t need no story or director to make us perfect.”
Hot you may be dream angels, but why you are there is one of those mysteries that may never be answered.
The story isn’t there. There’s a plot based on assuming the audience know King Kong’s film story, but it’s filled with illogical leaps, clunky dialogue and the melodrama of unearned emotion. It feels like it was written around the spectacle (during a tech run, before previews).
Kong deserves some writers. They don’t have to be expensive, award-winning writers, just writers who know story and how to tell story in theatre. People who know that a foreshadowing monkey has to come back; that unearned kisses don’t create love; that if a guy sings a song about Lady Liberty, his story should be about liberty; and that long-legged women don’t fill plot holes.
It’s a slightly dodgy analogy, but I’m going to compare it to a Pixar/Disney film. Films like Wal E, Toy Story and Monsters Inc are visually and technically sensational, but they start, end and are seen by zillions because of their stories. These scripts are written in writers’ rooms and drafted until they are perfect. Every syllable and story beat is analysed and worked until it’s assured that there isn’t a second where the audience will stop caring or drift off. The animation is the icing and ribbon around the cake of the story. Icing is vital and delicious, but doesn’t make sense without cakey substance.
When interval and post-show conversations are “what if they …”, instead of “what about when”, there’s something wrong.
Oh A-M, you’re a writer, so of course you care about the writing; the general public don’t care, they just want to see pretty. No one cares about story.
Think of your favourite stories – book, film, comic, tv, told in the pub. How many of them do you wish were different? How many do you remember just for how they looked? The sleazy producer Carl, who captures Kong, even says in the opening scenes “People want stories”!
So, it looks amazing, the dancing monkey is to-die-for and the cast nearly overcome the woeful story, but what about the music? It’s music theatre after all.
The music is forgettable. It’s not boring, but it doesn’t move the story, show character or add much more than a beat for the spectacle that it’s supporting.
The most successful number is Ann’s lullaby to Kong on Skull Island. Emotionally and dramatically, this is the moment for Ann to tell her secret, to reveal her soul to the god who can never share her truth. It’s the moment the audience is meant to be so with these two that every subsequent obstacle to their survival is heart breaking. Its repetition in Act 2 should leave the audience crying. But it’s a song about the moon. It’s performed beautifully and looks stunning, but it’s gutless.
The music could be removed from the show without affecting the story. I can’t name a long-running or award-winning show that can say the same.
King Kong could be a game changer. There is so much jaw-dropping, razzle-dazzle magnificence on the stage that it’s already changing the rules, but until the same amount of work that created its dazzling glory goes into the writing and the music, it’s just a couple hours of exquisite pretty that’s too easily forgotten.