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‘King Kong’: Monkey Business Down Under

Aussie producers have created a monster; now they get to find out how far the stage show can travel

With the eyes of the Gotham theater industry focused on the current Tony race, you might not notice that in an under-the-radar Down Under locale, there’s a big new stage show swinging into production.

We’re talking really big: More than a ton and 20 feet tall. And that’s just the lead actor.

King Kong,” the large-scale stage adaptation of the 1933 film, starts previews May 28 prior to a June 15 opening at Melbourne’s Regent Theater. In tow: A giant hybrid of animatronics and marionette in the title role, a book by New York stage vet Craig Lucas, a score that’s a stylized, contempo-period mashup, and global ambitions that are hardly a secret.

Next stop: New York? Too soon to say, but it’s definitely on the to-do list for production company Global Creatures. An eclectic group of high-profile creatives approach the big-budget project with a clear sense of its potential as an emotionally resonant modern myth — and they also seem
to understand the possible pitfalls of bringing it to the stage.

“’King Kong: The Musical’ does sound sort of comical, doesn’t it?” says Carmen Pavlovic, producer and Global Creatures topper. With such risks in mind, the company is working hard to eliminate any whiff of the theme park — or, for that matter, of the arenas the production company’s prior work, touring productions of “Walking With Dinosaurs” and “How to Train Your Dragon,” called home.

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In Lucas, they tapped a scribe known for intimate character studies (“The Light in the Piazza,” “Prelude to a Kiss”) rather than massive spectacles. “What am I doing here?” Lucas jokes. “I write two character plays south of 14th Street!”

“Kong’s” director, London-based American Daniel Kramer (“Prima Donna”), has international experience with large-scale productions, but in opera houses, not arenas. The score, a mix of new songs and 1930s-era tunes, comes from pop names including Sarah McLachlan and Massive Attack’s 3D (Robert Del Naja), and is overseen by composer-producer Marius de Vries, who was music director of Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge.”

The goal is to fit the epic scale of “Kong” into a proscenium-sized production that’s intimate enough never to lose sight of the humans. “There’s something so moving about watching this little person onstage with this giant creature who’s like a very big child,” Lucas says. “That’s the heart
of the story.”

Pavlovic won’t talk specifics about budget, saying only that “we’ve spent many multiples of what it might cost to develop a new musical” — which, on Broadway, can average approximately $12 million for a large-scale title.

Among the unusually pricey elements of the project’s five-year creative development: A six-month lead time on the stage of the Regent Theater, where the tech team has been at work on the set, and on integrating Kong into it, since the week before Christmas. Add to that the labor costs of a cast of 40, a crew of 75 and the more than a dozen puppeteers who bring Kong to life. Then there’s the ultra-realistic, entirely animatronic version of Kong that was designed and fabricated before it got scrapped in favor of the more expressionistic, human-powered version that will stalk the Regent stage.

The production’s launch in Oz wasn’t just a matter of proximity for West Melbourne-based Global Creatures. It also falls in line with an Australian affinity for tuner development in the wake of “Dirty Dancing” and “Priscilla Queen of the Desert.” And labor costs Down Under are much cheaper than on Broadway.

The ambition to combine technically epic spectacle and human-scale drama in a traditional legit venue might sound familiar to Gotham legiters who remember following the Broadway ups and downs of a certain wall-crawler. Whether that’s a valid parallel remains to be seen. But in terms of the financial model, “King Kong” shares at least one similarity to “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark”: Profitability will come not so much from the original staging but via the international incarnations producers hope it will inspire.

“We’re keen to take it around the world,” Pavlovic says of “King Kong.” “It’ll never cost the sort of money to replicate it as it cost to create it.”

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