REVIEW: “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” is Pure Magic

REVIEW: “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” is Pure Magic

After seven books, eight movies, a theme park, and two decades of near-ubiquitous cultural saturation, Harry Potter has finally arrived on Broadway.  Diehard fans of this fanciful wizarding world will no doubt be enchanted by “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: Parts One and Two”, which opened tonight at the Lyric Theatre, but I suspect even those more loosely acquainted with the franchise will also easily fall under its spell.  It’s hard not to.

“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”, offered in two parts viewed on the same day or on two consecutive evenings, is pure magic—an astonishing thrill ride packed with plentiful twists and turns in a production that marks a triumph of stagecraft and skillfully captures the spirit and sensibility of the series, itself an allegory that finds new resonance amid today’s global politics of encroaching authoritarianism.  This latest iteration of the Harry Potter tale, written by Jack Thorne, bears a pseudo-fan fiction feel, though its original story was developed in collaboration with author J.K. Rowling and stage director John Tiffany. 

Stepping back into the fantasy universe ingeniously created by Ms. Rowling, the play is set 19 years after the story arc of the book and film series, launching a new adventure involving new characters introduced in the epilogue of book seven.  In fact, the play begins right where that book ends: on the famous Platform 9 ¾ at King’s Cross station in London, awaiting the Hogwarts Express at the start of a new school year.

Harry, Hermoine, and Ron—everyone’s favorite magical triumvirate—are there alongside Draco Malfoy, but so is that next generation: James, Albus, and Lily Potter (children of Harry and Ginny Weasley), Rose Granger-Weasley (daughter of Hermoine and Ron), and Scorpius Malfoy (son of Draco). 

Nearly all of the actors in these roles have thankfully transferred from London’s West End, where the play premiered in 2016.  Each is superb—especially Anthony Boyle as Scorpius, Jamie Parker as Harry Potter, Noma Dumezweni as Hermoine, and Sam Clemmet as Albus—and bring with them across the pond deep bonds that enrich their relationships, providing the vital sense that our characters have a shared history together.  Expect, of course, other beloved personalities from the canon to pop up throughout the play, but I won’t say more or share more of the plot.

While the play was published in 2016, and has sold millions of copies, a good faith agreement between fans and the author, formalized in the #KeepTheSecrets pledge, calls on all those who have read or seen the play not to reveal plotlines so as to preserve the joy and magic of the experience for future audiences.  Upon exiting the theatre, every patron is handed a #KeepTheSecrets button—and so I will. 

For those nervous about conquering a five-plus hour play without foreknowledge, I had read books one through four, seen a couple movies, and cribbed books five through seven, but I’m glad I knew nothing about “Cursed Child” before seeing it.  And I’d advise you to do the same.  If you must, or somehow know nothing about Harry Potter, here’s a good primer.

Mr. Thorne has written the play so that even those who have never read the books can easily follow along, with a handful of exposition dumps and flashbacks that fill in any cracks that need filling (and a handy cheat sheet in the program).  While those moments may stunt the action, they are a temporary pause on an otherwise fast-paced and thrilling play that more than once had me on the edge of my seat and elicited generous and genuine gasps from the audience at several turns. 

Magic is central to the story.  Fortunately expert illusions and magic by Jamie Harrison employed in tandem with a dazzling and precise lighting design by Neil Austin create a cavalcade effects that are truly hair-raising and sense defying—achieving an impact of immediacy and surprise that could never be done with film.  This is the reason “Cursed Child” works as a play.  There is scarcely a wire seen or slight-of-hand exposed in the black vacuum of space that is the setting for most scenes.  I don’t want to spoil anything, but the stagecraft of “Cursed Child” raises the bar exponentially as compared to anything else on Broadway, past and present.

Like the book series, the play can be forgiven for bouts of naked sentimentality or over-showing of its hand.  That’s because it exists in a larger universe that began as young adult fiction, and because it is so well-written.  There is a reason the series has captured the imagination of millions, after all, and the festive air and positive energy pervading the recently redesigned Lyric Theatre make the experience of seeing this play special and unforgettable, for everyone.

The New York Times reported last week that the production cost a whopping $68.5 million, making it the most expensive play in Broadway history.  That figure includes $10 million to completely redesign and redecorate the interior of the Lyric Theatre, and another $23 million just to oust its former tenant, Cirque du Soleil’s “Paramour”—all fronted by the theatre’s British owner, the Ambassador Theater Group, in order to woo “Cursed Child” to its property.  With weekly grosses in excess of $1 million, and tickets sold out well into 2019, these costs are a safe investment, and, more importantly, the result is stunning (check out photos here), creating a Hogwarts-like atmosphere that extends from the auditorium to the lobby and down into the lounge.

Custom made ruby red carpeting with an “H” insignia give way to gorgeous wood paneling and meticulously detailed teal and gold wallpaper bearing the same “H” monogram.  Dragon lanterns and phoenix sconces punctuate exposed bulb lighting that is kept at a dim to maintain the ambiance of an old-world, Scottish highland surrounding.  The once cold and cavernous auditorium now feels warm and cozy, with an extended, curved dress circle mezzanine adorned by cascading box seats, and a wood-paneled ceiling crossed with trestle arches that mirror the smart and sparse set design by Christine Jones.  It’s all seamless, handsome, and immersive.

Ethereal, if occasionally generic music by Imogen Heap accompanies transitions and underscores key scenes, while ecstatic movement by Steven Hoggett (lots of cape swooshes!), performed by an ensemble of Hogwarts students, aids in set changes and injects another layer of dynamism to a show bursting with it.  In a big and sweeping story, performed on a big stage with a large cast, director John Tiffany is careful to focus the action in intimate scenes and leverage the emotional pull of the story within its grander mythology.  Harry Potter, at is core, has always been about friendship and childhood, and both are examined here in bittersweet and heartfelt ways.

Indeed, Mr. Thorne’s play excels and adds to the canon best when it delves into the psychological impact of the childhood traumas experienced by the first generation characters, exploring the darker realities of their teenage escapades and how they inform their roles as parents and citizens.  A reminder that our original trio was taught not to respond to evil acts with evil acts calls to mind Michelle Obama’s admonition “when they go low, we go high”, and the familiar fight of good vs. evil feels, well, familiar. 

While the politics of Harry Potter have always been manifestly obvious, what’s new here are moments like a short discourse on work-life balance.  As the characters have matured, so have their readers, and Mr. Thorne, Ms. Rowling, and Mr. Tiffany have crafted a story and fashioned a show that not only completes the original opus by giving it an entertaining, satisfying, and probing coda, but also feels relevant for fans old and new.  That’s a difficult balance requiring its own sort of wizardry, but they’ve done it.  This is no theme park attraction or cheap film-to-stage effort.  This is sophisticated craft and storytelling.

“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” is likely to be on Broadway for many years to come.  Some question whether that’s a good thing.  Sure, it’s not high art, but it is spectacularly thrilling entertainment expertly executed like no other, and while tickets are hard to come by and expensive, I am happy to report that the experience is well-worth it.

Bottom Line: Harry Potter makes his Broadway debut in a new play that is an astonishing thrill ride packed with plentiful twists and turns in a production that marks a triumph in stagecraft and skillfully captures the spirit and sensibility of the beloved book series and film franchise.  “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” is pure magic, and a must-see for any Harry Potter fan or acolyte.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
Lyric Theatre
214 West 43rd Street
New York, NY 10036

Running Time: 5 hours, 15 minutes
         Part One: 2 hours, 35 minutes (one intermission)
         Part Two: 2 hours, 40 minutes (one intermission)
Opening Night: April 22, 2018
Final Performance: open ended

Correction: an earlier version of this review stated that "Cursed Child" is grossing over $2 million a week; it has been corrected to reflect that grosses are over $1 million. 

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