King Kong, Live on Stage

One of my father’s favorite jokes goes, “First prize: one week in Australia. Second prize: two weeks in Australia.”

However, he has never been.

When my boyfriend, Marius de Vries, told me he had to go to Australia for five weeks to finish the King Kong musical he had been working on for the last three years, I didn’t really have a choice but to go visit him (I don’t respond well to long-distance relationships). So, to my father’s horror, I trekked to witness the birth of the 6-meter-tall Gorilla.

As much as I love the idea of theatre, I have a history of falling asleep or being attacked by fits of hysteria, as a consequence of my limited attention span. But in Daniel Kramer’s show, there’s no time for A.D.D.

There is a wow-factor in every area of the production–from Berliner Frieder Weiss’ futuristic projections to John "Cha-Cha" O’Connell‘s dizzying choreography to Peter Hylenski‘s thunderous sound design to Peter England’s colossal stage architecture.

Craig Lucas adroitly adapted the book from Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace’s novella of the 1933 film.

The most awe-inspiring element is of course the gigantic Gorilla, which is controlled by 10 puppeteers on stage. These black-clad and hooded ninjas perform an acrobatic routine while moving Kong’s limbs so smoothly that these puppeteers eventually disappear into the production. The most impressive aspect of the animatronic technology is the Gorilla’s face, humanized by three people at the back of the auditorium, two of whom control his facial muscles with Nintendo-like joy sticks called, "voodoo rigs," while the third manipulates his mouth and generates his voice live through a vocal processor.

In the intimate scenes between Ann and Kong, where she sings him to sleep with her “Full Moon” lullaby, you get to see the “voodoo” in its element. King Kong has just risked his own life to save Ann from a marauding giant king cobra, and his facial expressions are so humanly emotive that I began to well up. You feel how much he loves her and wants to keep her as his treasure, how she is his only friend on the lonely island. As he sinks to sleep with Ann clasped in his hand, his eyes look as if they are glistening with tears.

When I saw War Horse (the play), I nearly had to walk out of the theatre, my tears were vigorously streaming. It proved to all of us that you can be profoundly touched by a marionette that clearly isn’t real, puppetry visibly embracing its own artifice. King Kong reinforces this through its use of puppetry to demonstrate how evil and destructive humans can be at the expense of defenseless animals, and of other human beings.

Global Creatures, the creators and pioneers of this animatronic technology, were first put onto the map by their production of Walking with Dinosaurs, which was one of the top-grossing worldwide tours in 2010. Sonny Tilders, the creative director of Creature Technology Company, has a background in animatronic engineering for blockbuster movies such as Star Wars, Peter Pan and The Chronicles of Narnia. He used his experience in Hollywood to develop the computer software and hardware systems used in Walking With Dinosaurs, How to Train Your Dragon and now King Kong.

He used the same industrial servo motors used in the NASA Mars rovers to control Kong’s eyebrows, nose, upper lip, lower lip, jaw, corners of the mouth and upper and lower eyelids. Sonny’s “muscle bags” technology, which consists of stretch mesh fabric filled with polystyrene balls, contracts and stretches in the same manner that muscle, fat and skin do on real creatures. The result gives Kong a subtlety of expression and agility normally reserved for high-end film animatronics, never seen on stage before.

Frieder Weiss uses his own custom-designed software (based on MAX, a music synthesis software) to create projections that are capable of responding to heat, texture or motion with infrared sensors, so they’re able to achieve deep levels of spontaneity and complexity.

Many of the images he has created are linear and futuristic, while still speaking to cultural references from the past and present. The ocean, as they set sail for Skull Island, is represented by a lattice of polyhedrons, set into an unpredictable motion somewhat reminiscent of a web of neuron cells.

In an ensuing scene, rows of rectangular windows filled with black and white static fuzz slowly cascade down the walls. As Queenie van de Zandt dramatically pelts out her prediction about the downfall of mankind over a chorus of arcade-game bleeps in the prophetic anthem "Rise," the backdrop imagery reminded me of Pink Floyd’s line: “Got thirteen channels of shit on the TV to choose from.”

For me, though, the most impressive scene was the second "Ritual on Skull Island in Act One," in which the Islanders prepare to sacrifice Ann to the Gorilla. They all stand in a line, facing the audience, as they chant an ascending chorale over an insistent primal pulse. The infrared is able to detect their movements as Frieder Weiss projects a luminous shimmer precisely onto, but not past, their silver-white bodies. This has the effect of creating a flickering white noise pattern onto their costumes, this time with larger, more dramatic neon-white granules. The monochrome colors on stage contrast starkly with the cast’s blood-red stained palms, which are held up squarely above their shoulders as they slowly pace forward to the churning beat of the music. O’Connell’s tense choreography heightens the suspense as the Islanders invoke their God and invite Kong into their liminal space, before eventually dropping to the ground one by one in mute terror and awe.

This eclectic theatrical piece caters to the Facebook generation–of which I am, interweaving imagery borrowed from 1930s Broadway, Beyoncé’s “Gorilla Girl” costumes, Michael Jackson’s "Thriller" choreography, Madonna’s "Girlie" show…the list goes on. Daniel Kramer’s direction of music and sound design, projections and lighting, costumes, choreography and set design pushes the existing boundaries of musical theatre to a new level, making it feel relevant and fresh once again, and more like a contemporary movie-going experience. This will bring a whole new demographic in.

In line with the pop-culture references, Roger Kirk, the Tony award-winning costume designer, set out to make the costumes feel like “1930s meets fashion meets music video clips.” And he certainly achieved his ambition.

Influences range from Lady Gaga to 1930s Hollywood starlet Gene Harlow. Kirk admitted to me that his biggest secret weapon is known in the trade as “Killer.” She’s a New Yorker most famous for creating the Victoria’s Secret wings we all know from their runway shows.

However, apparently some of Kirk’s references were a bit too showy for a few early audience members. I noticed the extremely large, pointy latex leather boobs he created for the fantasy makeover number "Special FX" were noticeably reduced by the time I saw it for the second time in previews. I personally think the showier the better, no matter what the cost, but some critics have been perturbed by Kirk’s risqué and somewhat unconventional costumes.

Last, but not least, Marius’ music. He has done, once again, what he does best: re-contextualizes songs you’ve most likely heard before and seamlessly juxtaposes and blends them with original material, throwing unexpected references in at every corner, like he did in Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge. In King Kong, Marius has had the opportunity to collaborate with some faces from his past, namely 3D from Massive Attack, Guy Garvey from Elbow and Sarah McLachlan, all of whom he has co-written original songs with for the Kong.

King Kong producer Carmen Pavlovic’s brother Stephen Pavlovic happens to be Australian music royalty. I discovered while I was in Australia that literally every person in the Aussie music industry knows of him, and more than most know him personally. As a teenager, he made his mark by being the first person to bring Nirvana to his home country, and since then he has solidified his status by founding Modular People, label to Tame Impala, Cut Copy and, more relevantly, The Avalanches. It’s been a great mystery how King Kong managed to get The Avalanches to conjure their first release in 13 years, but Pav is the answer. Well, Pav’s influence and Marius’ unparalleled talent at getting musicians to finish songs!

The Avalanches’ last release was in 2000 with the album Since I Left You. Here, they rework the song "Get Happy", an old standard most famously sung by Judy Garland, initially giving it a ferocious skittering swing treatment and then morphing it into a churning and brutally dark minor-key Hip-Hop anthem.

Another genius touch in the music lies in the sampling of Justice’s "Genesis", which is first referenced as Kong is dramatically introduced to the audience and then becomes his theme tune throughout the rest of the show.

The rest of the original score and songs range–from Queenie’s almost operatic anthem, "Rise," to the Island’s otherworldly electroacoustic soundscapes to 3D’s epic ballad, "Colossus," to Guy Garvey’s subtle story-telling lyricism in "Perfect" to Sarah McLachlan’s poignant "What’s it Gonna Take", which tracks Ann’s emotional journey, to the choral apotheosis of Gorecki’s "Amen Opus 35."

The show premiered at the Regent Theatre in Melbourne on June 15, 2013, featuring 49 actors, singers, dancers, circus performers and puppeteers, and a total crew of 76. It has extended its run until the end of the year and has been nominated for eight Helpmann Awards (the Australian Tonys). It will then likely travel to Germany before reaching Broadway. If you plan on watching it any time soon, you may need to brace yourself for that 16-hour flight followed by weeks of jet lag!

— Henrietta Tiefenthaler

Twitter: @henrisays

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