King Kong, Robot Vs Art

King Kong, Regent Theatre, Melbourne, June 19; Robot Vs Art, Bondi Pavilion, Sydney, June 20

WHAT’S wrong with this picture? It’s late in Act II of King Kong and Queenie van de Zandt, as Cassandra, is singing the show’s most stirring number, Rise. As she sings, a chorus swelling behind her – and van de Zandt was in tremendous voice on Wednesday evening – we are to envisage King Kong climbing to the top of the Empire State Building where, we know, he will be destroyed. The climax of King Kong, the extravagantly scaled new musical, is at hand.

But who is Cassandra that she gets the night’s prime position? She’s a character – a device, really – the show really, truly doesn’t need. This is no disrespect to van de Zandt, who is as accomplished a music theatre performer as you’ll ever meet. It’s a structural thing. Cassandra – the name is the giveaway – is there to be the voice of foreboding at the beginning of the piece when film producer Carl Denham (newcomer Adam Lyon) is embarking on his grandiose plans to go to Skull Island, home to Kong.  Cassandra is there to predict this will all come to a bad end. You don’t say …

Cassandra is given relatively little stage time, so at this late crucial point in King Kong the big anthemic number is sung by a character in whom there is absolutely no audience investment. Obviously she’s covering the set change that places Kong on the top of the Empire State Building. Obviously there should be more than that.

King Kong

Esther Hannaford and King Kong

King Kong is, should be, about nothing but the highest stakes, something the show’s one unequivocal success proves. King Kong – the beast, not the show – is utterly, extraordinarily, splendiferously magnificent. King Kong producer Global Creatures has given audiences a creature to inspire awe and pity; to marvel at and to weep over – or at least potentially. As operated by a group of puppeteers called the King’s men, Kong expresses feelings unmatched by any living thing on stage.

The body of Kong contains the key themes writ extremely large: colonisation, oppression, exploitation, migration, the outsider and, above all, devotion. The show touches on all this, albeit  too many times with an unnecessarily heavy hand, but hasn’t yet managed an effective balance between the characters the audience needs to care about and those it doesn’t. I longed for a scene on the boat back from Skull Island that would show Kong in captivity and starlet Ann Darrow (Esther Hannaford) developing her compassion for him; without it Act II gets underway with the audience having to connect an awful lot of dots. On the other hand, I longed for savage cuts to be made to scenes featuring Carl Denham. The character is deeply unpleasant and Lyon lacks the adamantine charisma that can give an awful but seductive charm to such men.

Since King Kong’s premiere in Melbourne last Saturday night there has been interesting and fruitful discussion about whether it really is a musical, or a spectacular, or a new direction in theatre that takes the book musical, adds elements unknown in the golden era of the 1950s, and creates something new. That’s all good to talk about, but is a separate issue from the nitty-gritty of King Kong’s weaknesses. The flaws have nothing to do with genre. They have to do with logic, shape, rhythm, tone and character development.

And some of the dialogue is execrable, as if it’s what has remained after the scissors have been wielded over-enthusiastically to fit in more spectacle. (Craig Lucas, who is credited with the book, is a highly experienced and successful writer.) “I must be dreaming,” says Hannaford helpfully as scantily clad dancing girls emerge from nowhere on the Skull Island-bound ship for a fantasy scene. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. Surely there’s a better way to signal this if you doubt the audience’s ability to get what’s happening. Such dead language, and there are many other examples, is entirely at odds with the originality of the piece’s visual and musical aspirations.

I loved the way the music mixed original songs (not all entirely memorable) with existing material, particularly when it included 1920s and 1930s references. There are brief snatches of Brother Can you Spare a Dime, I Wanna be Loved by You and the Lutheran hymn carol Joy to the World, the Lord is Come. There is stunning use made of Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler’s Get Happy, given surreal treatment with traces of Weimar Republic-era desperate wit. As the escaping Kong starts his rampage, a line of platinum-blonde chorines keeps the show going: “Get ready for the judgment day,” they sing. Quite.

An eclectic approach is also taken to the show’s tone. There are traces of cheesy Saturday morning adventure flick, 1930s romantic comedy, futuristic sci-fi, camp send-up and early Dr Who – a hugely ambitious position that, I think, can only work if anchored by the strongest emotional through-line.

Hannaford and Chris Ryan, as Ann’s love interest Jack Driscoll, do their best with the insufficient time they have to connect deeply – and they’d be helped by a more dramatic setting for their falling-in-love dance scene. In a show so ear- and eye-poppingly decked out with son et lumiere they look quite lost and dull here. And Jack appeared to be singing about men killed while building the San Francisco bridge (que?), or did I get that wrong?

(On another matter relating to lyrics, does Cassandra really sing about people falling at the top of Act II? It was in a context that made me immediately think of September 11, 2001. Not sure that will be right for Broadway, should that be in the offing.)

King Kong needs a lot more work to achieve its goal of being the “timeless love story” it bills itself as, but gee, I hope it gets there. The big fella at its centre deserves it. All hail to Kong’s creators, who have given the huge creature expression, character and eloquent articulation. The puppeteers who animate Kong are involved in an intricate choreography that is entrancing in and of itself, but more pertinently they and the great wires that support Kong so visibly get right to the heart of the story. As men swarm over, around and under Kong there’s not only the excitement of his moving presence but a premonition of his subjugation. From the moment we first see Kong he’s already captive.

King Kong shows in Melbourne only. It is currently taking bookings through to October 13 for groups and August 18 for the general public.

Robot Vs Art, presented by Tamarama Rock Surfers

NOT in Melbourne, but from Melbourne, comes Travis Cotton’s surreally comic sci-fi morality tale Robot Vs Art. A bit like King Kong in some respects, at about a millionth of the budget. There’s even a bit of the early Dr Who vibe about it.

In a not-too-distant dystopian future, robots rule the earth of which humans have made such a hash. After some wholesale slaughter the men and women who remain are put to work as underground miners while the robots set about creating a weird kind of Eden. But then Executive Bot (Simon Maiden) has a mind to investigate this puzzling art stuff; stuff that apparently has some emotional value, whatever that is. Giles (Daniel Frederiksen) is a human who has done a bit of playwriting – cue many hilarious theatre in-jokes – and is charged with finding a way of getting art, and thus feeling, across to robots. This involves him working with unlikely thespians Claw Bot (Paul David Goddard) and Fembot (Natasha Jacobs).

Some of the message-making is pretty heavy-handed (honestly, the similarities to King Kong keep piling up) but the show is a delight. Rough and ready to the nth degree, packed with great jokes, performed with tremendous elan and with a nice twist at the end. Much recommended.

 Bondi Pavilion until July 6.

Noel and Gertie, The Removalists

Noel and Gertie, a CDP production, Glen St Theatre, Sydney, May 25.

The Removalists, Tamarama Rock Surfers, Bondi Pavilion, Sydney, May 29

NOEL Coward and Gertrude Lawrence met as child actors and immediately and lastingly took to one another. Sheridan Morley’s evocation of their bond, Noel and Gertie, was created in 1981 to be performed at a benefit, although its careful construction meant it had a later life in several theatre seasons in the 1980s in London. It’s a wisp of a piece: amusing, charming and deftly avoiding anything too personal – not that Morley was unacquainted with this subjects as he had written biographies of both. He chose, however, to concentrate on the glamour, wit and style of the pair as refracted through the theatah.

Lucy Maunder and James Millar in Noel and Gertie. Photo: Nicholas Higgins

Lucy Maunder and James Millar in Noel and Gertie. Photo: Nicholas Higgins

Naturally this means lots of lovely songs, sensitively accompanied on grand piano by music director Vincent Colagiuri, and happy reminders of Coward’s stage works. Scenes from plays – Private Lives, of course; Blithe Spirit; Tonight at 8.30 – are stitched together neatly with the music and material from diaries and letters to paint a fond and rosy picture with just a tinge of melancholy. Coward and Lawrence’s youth when they started in the business is the excuse for a rollicking Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs Worthington, and Has Anybody Seen Our Ship? from Red Peppers, one of the 10 short plays that make up Tonight at 8.30, is cheerful, uplifting nonsense.

The show, however, leans more towards reflection. Parisian Pierrot, from the revue London Calling!, was written for Lawrence and is beautifully sung by Lucy Maunder, as are Sail Away and If Love Were All, which contains the phrase so often associated with Coward, “a talent to amuse”. It was much more than that, of course, although not necessarily recognised right away by the critical establishment. James Millar, as Coward, is given the lovely line that in the early days he was forced to accept “the bitter palliative of commercial success”. What a Noel-y thing to say.

Under Nancye Hayes’s light-touch direction Maunder is an enchanting Gertie, poised and soignee to just the right degree. Millar could find just a little more gloss for the Master but he has time, given the lengthy tour Noel and Gertie is about to embark on.

And just a few words on The Removalists …

THERE could be no greater contrast to Noel and Gertie than David Williamson’s The Removalists (1971), written in the playwright’s gritty early years (it was written in the same year as Don’s Party and the year after The Coming of Stork).

The Tamarama Rock Surfers production, directed by Leland Kean, is a beauty: tough, lean, as shocking today as it was four decades ago. Constable Ross (Sam O’Sullivan), fresh out of the academy, turns up for his first day of work to find he’s in a little suburban police outpost where if things are big, they need the attention of a bigger station, and if they are small, they’re probably too small to worry about.

Justin Stewart Cotta

Justin Stewart Cotta in The Removalists

The sergeant (Laurence Coy) is one of those incredibly passive-aggressive types who has the art of manipulation so well-honed it’s as natural as breathing. Or, in his case, as sitting down and deflecting work. Except when there might be a bit of advantage to be taken.

The Removalists is a NSW HSC drama text and the performance I attended was an early evening one for students. It was fascinating and heartening to see the group of mainly young men so attentive to the piece, and also taken aback by the casual sexism Williamson so deftly illuminates. I assume the students had already read the play so knew where it was all heading, but the way the Sarge patronised the women who had come for his help, made vile insinuations and put his hands everywhere had some in the audience literally gasping.

Terrific performances all round, by the way, with a special mention to Justin Stewart Cotta as Kenny, the over-bearing, boorish husband who knocks around his wife a bit and gets rather more back than anyone intended.

Noel and Gertie ends at Sydney’s Glen St Theatre on June 1. Then Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre, Penrith, June 5-6; Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, June 11-15; Frankston Arts Centre, Frankston, June 20; Whitehorse Centre, Nunawading, June 21-22; The Concourse, Chatswood, June 26-29; Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, Queanbeyan, July 2-7; Dubbo Regional Theatre, Dubbo, July 10; Orange Civic Theatre, Orange, July 12-13; Laycock Street Theatre, Gosford, July 16-18; Manning Entertainment Centre, Taree, July 20; The Space, Adelaide Festival Centre, Adelaide, July 23-27.

The Removalists ends June 15.