After five years in development, the musical stage adaptation of King Kong has burst onto the stage of Melbourne's Regent Theatre. The brainchild of the production that features a cast of 50 performers and a crew of 76 people is the CEO of Global Creatures, Carmen Pavlovic who in 2008 wanted to extend her company's animatronic technology but needed an appropriate vehicle.
"As I really got to think about it I became more and more captivated by the fact that it was a love story, and I could see musical possibilities in that very strongly," said Carmen.
The challenge from the beginning was whether it was actually possible to create the illusion of a believable giant ape on stage. Once Global Creatures, the entertainment outfit who are also responsible for Walking With Dinosaurs and How To Train Your Dragon, had performed a series of successful engineering and control tests, Carmen was confident to appoint a creative team to fully realise her vision.
"So it was a bit back to front in terms of the normal journey of a musical, which would start with a book or the music; we really had to start with 'is it physically possible to do this?' I think a lot of people who come to musicals like adventure; they like to be tickled, they like to be dazzled, they like to cry, they like to laugh. I want to give the audience a roller coaster ride they'll never forget."
Playing the role of Cassandra, a prophetess who sees the future and tries to warn the film-maker Carl that his greed will be his undoing, is the award-winning Australian actress, Queenie Van De Zandt, who relishes the opportunity to work on a new musical.
"Working on a new show is more exciting and more heartbreaking in equal measure because things you dreamed of - come true and things you love end up cut; it's all part of the process. If I could, I'd always choose to work on creating new work than just doing a pre-existing show. It's so much richer," said Queenie.
"I was approached to meet with Daniel Kramer, the Director, after he saw my performance as the Bearded Lady in the Sydney Festival show Smoke & Mirrors. He asked me to be a part of the first workshop. After that they just kept asking me back to each workshop and then eventually offered me the role of Cassandra and the High Priestess."
Flight Centre had to ask Queenie what it's like to perform with such a massive silverback.
"Kong is huge and when you stand next to him on stage or watch him from the audience, he's real and the King's Men who puppeteer him and control his facial expressions and breath - are part of him. It's seriously extraordinary."
The statistics around the ape are astonishing: Kong weighs 1.1 tonnes and is six metres tall. After experimenting with two prototypes and four scale models, it took 50 specialists a year to build the beast, which is essentially a steel skeletal frame covered by inflatable cells and sculpted styrene bean-filled forms that replicate muscle movement. There are also 300 metres of electrical cables, 1,500 connections and 16 microprocessors within the structure. Those intricate facial expressions are created by 15 industrial servo motors.
The revolutionary aspect that had never been attempted live before is the three-level process that allows Kong to move around the stage realistically. An automation system controls his primary movements, a custom-designed remote control operated by live puppeteers off-stage create the subtle movements and on-stage acrobatic puppeteers, which are known as the King's Men, are responsible for the direct manipulation.
Unlike other musicals that open in one city and tour around Australia, the producers of King Kong have stated that this production will only be presented in Melbourne. Destination Melbourne's Chief Executive Chris Buckingham was quoted in The Age as saying that this musical reinforces Melbourne's reputation as a cultural destination.
"Shows that want to succeed come to Melbourne first, because they know that they will be made welcome by locals and visitors. We love blockbuster shows like Kong because they attract quality crowds. Theatre goers activate our streets, eat at our restaurants and stay in our hotels. They give business and the community a sustained lift for months and months," said Chris.
Given that this is the perfect opportunity to explore Victoria's capital, we asked Queenie for her recommendation on a great restaurant to enjoy a meal before the show.
"Melbourne has the best Vietnamese Pho soup I've ever had. It's from an inexpensive restaurant that's always packed because the food is so cheap, so high quality and so great! It's called MeeKong (and would you know it - it's got Kong in the title) on Swanston St just around where it joins Chinatown. I go there about twice a week to eat," she said.
Away from performing and work, Queenie regularly travels to the Netherlands. "That's where all my relatives live - I'm a Dutchie at heart."
Talk to your local Flight Centre consultant regarding a special Kong package that includes flights, accommodation and tickets to see King Kong in Melbourne.