Rachel Grunwell

Rachel Grunwell is a fitness writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Australia: Monkeying around in Melbourne

King Kong thunders into Melbourne this June. Rachel Grunwell meets the lead

Esther Hannaford as Ann Darrow in King Kong's Hand from the Melbourne production of the 'King Kong' musical. Photo / James Morgan
Esther Hannaford as Ann Darrow in King Kong's Hand from the Melbourne production of the 'King Kong' musical. Photo / James Morgan

The star of the latest King Kong show is a colossal puppet capable of portraying emotion.

Weighing in at more than one tonne, the 6m gorilla is part-marionette, part-animatronic and part-puppet. It contains 1.1 tonnes of steel, aluminum, lycra and latex and its muscles are covered in bean balls (think giant bean bags), giving the illusion of
real flesh and muscle tone. It can also grunt, growl and roar.

"This show is where traditional theatre meets modern theatre," explains technical director, Richard Martin, who urges Kiwis to be among the first in the world to see the show.

Billed as an epic piece of musical theatre, King Kong is based on the original 1933 movie, but has a modern twist on the classic love story. It features a cast of more than 40 actors, singers, dancers and circus performers and a team of puppeteers who will bring to life one of the most technologically advanced puppets in the world.

One puppeteer alone controls Kong's eyebrows, upper and lower eyelids, nose, upper and lower lips, jaw and mouth corners.

Others operate buttons and push levers that look similar to those used to fly an aeroplane. These are called "voodoo controls" and have been specially developed by the company that made this Kong, Global Creatures, which also created the stars of Walking with Dinosaurs and How to Train Your Dragon.

Then there are the King's Men who are on stage performing more puppetry. Dancers will astound audiences by flying around and above the giant creature, which is solid enough for some of them, suspended from ropes in the ceiling, to land on him.

This grand production looks set to take theatrical spectaculars to a whole new height, literally.


Small-town success

"A lot can happen to a boy from a small town, if you're determined to succeed," says Travis Khan.

Originally from Rotorua, Travis will be on stage in the King Kong show whenever there is a dance scene. The 32-year-old is also a cover for one of the 14 King's Men that operate the giant puppet, plus he understudies Taji, one of the sailors.

"It's incredible to be able to have the opportunity to do this," says Khan, who is training six days a week at rehearsals, gym sessions, dance classes and yoga. This is his eighth musical show, after being "discovered" by a casting director for the Disney production of The Lion King in Australia.

Travis jokes he has come a long way since he was a geeky kid with big glasses and parted-hair, growing up in the Bay of Plenty.

As a youngster he did speech and drama at Western Heights High School and was involved with the Rotorua Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society.

He took a couple of years off after high school before studying for a bachelor of Performing and Screen Arts at the New Zealand School of Dance, and credits a mate for urging him to audition for the course. Since graduating, he has worked hard to stay in top form to be selected for the big shows.

"If you want something, you just have to go for it," he says.

For Travis, dancing around King Kong is a dream come true.


Getting there: Fly there with Air New Zealand Book now

Where to stay: Crown Metropol offers luxury accommodation, is just a short walk from the city centre and can lay claim to the city's highest sky bar and lounge. crownhotels.com.au

• King Kong packages, including Air NZ flights, are available through House of Travel, ph 0800 713 715 or visit www.houseoftravel.co.nz

• For ideas of other things to do in Melbourne, go to Tourism Victoria's website,
playmelbourne.co.nz


Rachel Grunwell travelled to Melbourne courtesy of Tourism Victoria. King Kong opened on June 15.

Find out more at Australia.com

- Herald on Sunday

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