Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
These books came to mind when I was in the audience for the opening night of the new version of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which has been shortened from two plays presented over six hours, to a single three-hour and 30-minute production. Although this new version is still a magnificent spectacle of theatrical magic and stagecraft and well worth your time and money, I felt something important was left on the cutting room floor. The first act feels especially rushed, as though we are flipping through the pages of a book, skimming across the surface of a story to get to the really good parts. Make no mistake, there are plenty of good parts, but the heavy-handed editing seems to have made it even harder for anyone new to the Harry Potter universe to follow along. (However, my theatergoing companion, who wouldn't know a Weasley from a Malfoy, or have any idea of the differences between a Death Eater and a Dementor, loved the show and was enraptured by the special effects.)
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child picks up almost two decades after J.K. Rowling's seven-volume series of books ended. The heroic wizard Harry Potter is now a middle-aged man, sending his son Albus Severus Potter off to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. On the train to Hogwarts he meets and befriends Scorpius Malfoy, the son of one of his father's major nemeses, the villainous Draco Malfoy. Harry is not happy about this, and father and son have a clash where both say things to the other they will regret. But there is no time for family squabbles, as the uber-villain of the HP universe, Voldemort, has apparently risen from the dead, and is once again threatening the peace of the wizarding world. And, once again, a Potter must step up to quash the aims of the Dark Lord, with the help of Scorpius and Rose Granger-Weasley (daughter of Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley), and a magical device called a Time Turner that allows one to travel into the past.
The story is a thrilling one, with epic battles between wizards, and addresses themes that resonate outside the world of magic: the challenges of living up to the legacy of a famous father, the vigilance required to keep evil at bay (given current events, I kept thinking about Putin every time Voldemort was mentioned), and the importance of friendship and parental love.
But it's the special effects that make Harry Potter and the Cursed Child a must-see. You've likely seen nothing like it, and if the gasps of delight and cheers of appreciation from the crowd at the Curran are any indication, neither had the audience. From subtle effects, like a hat suspended in mid-air or brooms rising magically, to grand illusions that fill the theatre (I won't spoil the fun by revealing them), the show is absolutely chock-a-block with, well, magic.
Thrilling though these special effects are, they are not the only reason you should get yourself down to the Curran. The cast members, many of whom were in the two-part version that played here before the pandemic shut everything down, are, variously, charming, funny, villainous, scheming and wounded, embodying all the emotions one would expect from a tale of good vs. evil. John Skelley plays Harry Potter with a delightful humility that marvelously echoes the character J.K. Rowling created: a hesitant hero who nonetheless rises to the challenges presented to him. Shannon Cochran plays both Professor McGonagall and Dolores Umbridge, and embodies the latter with a delightful haughtiness. Every time she is required to say the name "Potter," she hesitates for a beat and then practically spits the word out as if it were poison on her tongue. Benjamin Papac returns to play Albus as an angsty teen–but one with a hero's soul. However, it's Jon Steiger who once again steals every scene as Scorpius Malfoy. His voice is a powerful squeak, which sounds oxymoronic, but he wields it with such skill–and brilliant comic timing–that you smile every time he opens his mouth. Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks plays three roles, but seems to have the most fun of any member of the three-dozen strong cast when she is onstage as Moaning Myrtle, the ghost who inhabits one of the girl's bathrooms at Hogwarts, writhing and whining and preening and posturing, as she taunts those seeking information from her.
You don't have to be a Harry Potter fan to love this show, but from the hisses when evil characters are mentioned and the applause when favorites step on stage, it seemed clear that most in the audience on opening night were true devotees. After seeing Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, you may be so entranced by what Rowling and her collaborators (Jack Thorne and John Tiffany) have created that you may end up a Potterhead, too. The universality–and perhaps even the ordinariness–of the show's themes, set against the backdrop of magic and wizardry, combine to make this a theatrical experience like no other. Though I do wish you could have seen the unabridged version.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child plays in an open-ended at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary Street, San Francisco CA. Tickets range from $59-$199, are on sale through September 4, 2022, and can be purchased by visiting HarryPotterPlaySF.com.