Click on any photograph by Manuel Harlan or Matthew Murphy to see it enlarged and read the captions.
What if Harry Potter hadn’t existed until now? What if Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the five and a half hour play now on Broadway about two generations of Potters and their friends and enemies, was the first in the franchise — not preceded by J.K. Rowling’s seven novels published between 1997 and 2007 that so far have sold some half a billion copies, nor the eight film adaptations between 2001 and 2011 that have so far grossed $7.7 billion? Let’s assume that such a long straight play about previously unknown wizards could make it onto a Broadway stage; how would theatergoers be reacting?
I got an answer of sorts in a conversation during intermission with a woman sitting near me at the newly renovated Lyric Theater. She was what you might call (to adapt a Potter coinage) a Muggle. She told me she had never read a Harry Potter book nor seen a Harry Potter movie – and incredibly, hadn’t even known that the series is about a boy wizard. (Her Potter-knowledgeable companion had brought her to the show.) Nor did she read the helpful synopses of previous Potter plots and the Potter glossary in the playbill. And yet, she was loving the show; “the production is great.”
Surely, there are some Potter novitiates who would be confused if not outright perturbed by a play that doesn’t pretend it stands alone. The production, transferred intact from London, is full of past Potter characters (Albus Dumbledore and Severus Snape are among those who make what you might consider cameo appearances) and so heavy with past events that whole scenes either are lifted nearly verbatim from Potter books or are revisited through a plot that revolves around time traveling.
Yet, whatever the extent of your Potter training, prepare to be dazzled. The special effects are awe-inspiring: One character changes into another before our eyes, people pop out from a flaming fireplace, or disappear in front of us; there are puffs and flashes and continuous streams of fire. When we are being taken backwards or forwards in time, the clocks don’t just spin, the entire stage seems to shimmer and shudder.
But the illusions (by a team including Jamie Harrison, in charge of “Illusions & Magic,” and the “Original Special Effects Designer” Jeremy Chernick) are just one part of the extraordinary stagecraft. The design team works overtime. While the vaulted ceilings and the central clock of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry are always visible on stage, the set by Christine Jones (Tony winner for American Idiot) is full of surprises, occasionally extending out to the entire auditorium. Choreographer Steven Hoggett, who worked wonders in such shows as Peter and the Starcatcher and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, is here designated the movement director. He creates interludes in which the ensemble is moving in unison on stage to Imogen Heap’s original haunting music in a way that is nearly indistinguishable from dancers in a musical number in a Broadway musical – except in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, they are wearing black capes and waving glowing wands, perhaps casting a spell, or at least establishing some scary atmospherics.
Add to that some first-rate acting among the 40-member cast, with standouts including the two next-generation wizards – Sam Clemmett as Albus, one of Harry Potter’s sons, and Anthony Boyle as Scorpius, the son of Draco Malfoy — who carry much of the plot on their shoulders.
Nineteen years after the last Harry Potter installment, Albus and Scorpius are teenage outcasts and best friends. Albus is eclipsed by and alienated from his father. Harry (Jamie Parker), who at 37 is the head of Magical Law Reinforcement at the Ministry of Magic, and still so famous that he automatically signs his autograph on the bare midriff of a young woman who has lifted up her blouse for the honor. In an act of rebellion, Albus goes back in time to try to save Cedric, who was killed while pairing up with Harry in the Triwizard Tournament (Look it up in the playbill.) Albus blames Harry for the murder (and Harry blames himself as well.) Albus and Scorpius mess up, their presence in the past altering the present in ways they didn’t expect, and they return again and again to try to fix it.
Meanwhile – or related? – Harry Potter and his old friends Hermione Granger ( Noma Dumezweni), who is now the Minister of Magic, Hermione’s now-husband Ron Weasley (Paul Thornley), Harry’s wife Ginny (Poppy Miller), even Draco Malfoy (Alex Price) gather the community of wizards and witches together to figure out how to face what seems to be a resurgence of the dark arts.
That’s all I’ll say about the action-packed plot, because I’d be accused of spoiling it, and it’s too involved to relate anyway (The script by Jack Thorne, from an original story by Rowling, Thorne and director John Tiffany was published two years ago, becoming of course a best-seller, and available for sale at the theater as well.) The storytelling that is most satisfying for the less Potter-obsessed are those elements that make Harry Potter and the Cursed Child feel like the theatrical equivalent of a Young Adult Novel — its exploration of adolescent friendships and father-son relationships, its lessons about judging character; people who the world dismisses as losers can really be decent and kind; while those who appear to be good-natured and friendly can turn out to be….evil!
The Pottermaniac who accompanied me to Harry Potter and The Cursed Child, someone who has read every book and seen every movie (several times), was fine with the length, and couldn’t see how it could be cut. I think it could easily have been shorter without losing any impact (perhaps even gaining a little gratitude from those who must serve as chaperones.) Indeed, I couldn’t help wondering why the powers that be decided to divide the play into two parts with separate admissions. Is it evil of me to think it might have something to do with money? Attending the show anytime in 2018 will likely cost at least $300 per person (unless you win the digital lottery)
One can almost (almost!) sympathize with the high ticket prices, given that the production is reported to have cost $68.5 million to mount, by far the highest ever invested in a straight play on Broadway (and one of the highest even for a musical.) This includes $33 million to redo the 1,622-seat Lyric Theater, one of two Broadway houses now managed by the UK’s mammoth Ambassador Theater Group. One can be impressed by the upholstered walls, H-monogrammed carpets, Dragon lanterns and phoenix sconces, but wonder why they have hired just one staffer to handle both the coat check and the distribution of the assistive listening devices, and why these untested devices are glitchy (Why haven’t they installed the accessibility features, such as Galapro, that every Broadway theater is supposed to have in place by this summer?) Also: why the steps in the auditorium seem designed for theatergoers to trip over; why the lines to the rest rooms seem even more unbearably disorganized than they were before the renovation; why they have such a privacy-invading policy regarding their in-house Wi-Fi; why the place as a whole seems so poorly managed.
But enough about these Muggle missteps. What counts is the welcome escape into the world of wizardry. Magic is happening on the stage of the Lyric.