The enormous gorilla roars into Australia’s theatre scene but has he scared off his Broadway investors?

A 1.1 tonne monster of steel and cables, Kong is a true beast of both engineering and live puppeteering. His deafening roar shakes the very foundations of the Regent Theatre. Bold, brash and a little bit bizarre, King Kong was always going to divide audiences. But as the most expensive production ever produced in Australia, does it really live up to the hype?

After playing to packed houses since previews, critics have so far unanimously agreed that Kong himself is a sight to behold. Unlike the incredible realism of Global Creature’s Warhorse puppets, the audience is explicitly aware of the troop of black ninja-like puppeteers and 300 metres of electrical wiring that act as Kong’s lifeblood. Yet rather than detracting, they act as a constant reminder of the enormity of the production’s technological achievements.

Overall, the production value of the show is enormous and truly groundbreaking. John “Cha Cha” O’Connell’s choreography is slick and polished and when coupled with Peter Mumford’s lighting design – a dazzling 27 metre wide LED screen, the collaboration ranges from truly spectacular to visually confronting.

However it is clear that this production is still a bit of a gangly teenager – one can’t help but feel that the show suffers from a serious case of trying too hard to impress. Worryingly, it is the two key ingredients of musical theatre – the score and the book, that fare the worst.

Musically, the production lacks a united voice and a clear vision. Although somewhat reminiscent of Baz Luhrman’s contextual-contemporary musical fusion in The Great Gatsby, Marius de Vries score is overcomplicated and confusing. Featuring five major collaborators including Canadian songwriter Sarah McLachlan, the score jumps jarringly from hip hop and jazz to Verdi’s Requiem with the occasional Broadway number thrown in for good measure. Special FX, a peculiar concoction somewhere between Madonna’s Material Girl and Grease’s Beauty School Dropout is good fun but fails to further the story and ultimately feels out of place. Furthermore, it’s hard not to feel a little uncomfortable with the female ensemble kitted out in dominatrix-style black corsets. The low-point of de Vries’ musical soundscape has to be KILL 4 THE THRILL. Complete with gorilla leotards and the lyrics “King Kong, King Kong! He’s very very big and very very strong”, it’s unfortunately embarrassingly cringe-worthy. The 1930s were renowned for their gutsy hits, yet none of them appear here. Ultimately, the desperation – the very essence of the Depression era that underpins and informs the original story is all but lost.

Conversely, the story seems to be an afterthought, neglected at the expense of Kong’s wow factor. The dialogue is clunky and cliched and affords little time to explore the motivations and subtleties of Cooper’s original story. The production really seems to lack a real heart as it veers between the monster puppet and the rest of the story, loosely tacked together and dependent upon the audience’s prior knowledge of the King Kong legend.

Although the character of Ann Darrow is dramatically cut at the expense of the believability and complexity of the character, Esther Hannaford copes beautifully with the limited emotional scope of her role and pulls off her songs with aplomb. Full Moon Lullaby is a musical highlight, its folky flexibility demanding Hannaford to step outside the typical musical theatre voice type to find a fragility and achieve a sympathetic treatment of the lyrics. Locked in a constant battle against the show-stealing qualities of a rather large gorilla puppet, Hannaford just manages to come out on top.

Unfortunately this superficial character treatment recurs frequently throughout the rest of the production, particularly manifesting itself in the characters of Jack Driscoll and Cassandra. Queenie van de Zandt’s voice is a force to be reckoned with, spectacularly showcased in Rise, yet is rendered almost irrelevant as a result of poor storytelling. Reduced to roles with such little scope, it’s a real shame that we don’t get to see more of such talented and obviously capable actors and singers.

As Denham closes the first act with “This show’s going to Broadway” it’s hard not to ignore the desperate hopes overshadowing the entire production and perhaps made maybe a little too blatantly clear. Perhaps an arena format would have helped director Kramer to accentuate King Kong’s strengths. Regardless, it is truly encouraging to see that Australia does have the means and the talent to produce its own large scale productions, and such groundbreaking theatre at that. What is truly exciting about this production is the promise of the future. Could a large gorilla herald the beginning of a new era of philanthropy and boundless imagination in Australian theatre?

King Kong plays at the Regent Theatre, Melbourne until December 2013