A vibrant red carpet made for a change from the usual theatrical first-night events seen in Melbourne. We even got to witness the always plastic fantastic Sophie Monk striking a pose to the cameras. On route to our seats we spot Glenn Robbins, Julia Zemiro and David Whenam (who is set to play John Proctor in a new stage production of The Crucible - as well another big screen chapter of the 300 franchise).
But King Kong has ridden into town as 'an event', so tonight's opening nighters stretch beyond the usual theatre-going A-listers and crosses into other industries. Michael Gudinski mills around while Red Symons, Geoffrey Rush, Ted Baillieu and Robert Doyle look on. Doyle has misread his ticket number and is in the wrong seat, “I just de-seated our lord mayor, how awkward” can be heard from behind.
It's 1930s New York, and Regent Theatre is the perfect setting for this hyped world premiere. The Regent opened in 1929 and was formerly a cinema, it's a natural fit to the story of Kong that began as a 1933 film. But, tonight, it is all about the puppet.
The backdrop of this newest take on the King Kong tale is a digitally stylized representation of 1930s New York. Despite having to size up against a giant co-star, Esther Hannaford doesn't overact as the Hollywood starlet Ann Darrow. This level of honesty in lead performances is rarely seen in big budget musicals.
After a lengthy build up, it's the deafening foot steps of Kong we hear first. It's Kong's teeth we see first as the giant gorilla reaches for Darrow, who at this point is tied up in the uncharted depths of the Skull Island jungle. Though Kong's puppeteers/handlers are visible, it does not take away from the effect that a massive gorilla has overtaken the space. Kong has upstaged everyone.
The music by Marius De Vries is brilliant, it enhances the story and utilises the strengths of the performers. This being a beauty-tames-the-beast tale, Hannaford gets to calm Kong with Full Moon Lullaby. This song reprises at different points, it possesses a gentle air about it and perfectly connects with the visual of Kong and Darrow under the moon. Then, in the chase scene, as Kong runs to save Darrow, the soundtrack features the sounds of Justice's Genesis. The moonlight atmosphere gives way to a spot of silverback gorilla superclubbing - Eursostyle. The music somehow suits Kong's modern take on 1930s big band sounds, which feature sweeping equalizer FX.
For Hannaford it's a giant climb from her recent stint, in a shed in Brunswick, for Four Lark's The Temptation Of St Antony. Director Daniel Kramer has taken some paid-off risks putting together a cast with varying levels of musical theatre experience. And, what emerges is a truth in performance that doesn't employ the common razzle dazzle fluff of musical theatre acting. Sure, King Kong is an event, but it is also a massive achievement in puppeteering, casting and music.