Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
Based on Story by J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne & John Tiffany
In a world full of eye-popping, hair-raising, gasp-producing illusions and magic, steep staircases dance as if stars in a ballet; doors and suitcases waltz and twirl; and an ancient, arched ceiling reaching to the heavens transforms mystically into a dense and dark forest. Fire flashes through the air from wands of wizardry; people appear and disappear seemingly from nowhere to nowhere; and horrible, screeching demons swoop from above to envelop their victims, dissolving the poor souls into nothing. And through it all, a moving, compelling story unfolds about the power of friendship, family, and community – a story of approach/avoidance, love/hate, hurt/forgiveness particularly familiar to most parents and their now-or-once teen-age children.
After 660 days of a dark stage due to the ravages of COVID, San Francisco’s Curran Theater celebrates its 100thanniversary with the exclusive West Coast production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (play be Jack Thorne, based on story by J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany). First conceived as the 2016, two-part play that took London and New York by storm and won more awards than any new play in history, this new version consolidates two nights of theater into one of three-and-a-half hours – two-hundred-ten minutes that seem to fly by all too quickly with its scores of breath-taking scenes and a story that becomes ever-more gripping with its dozens of twists and turns.
From those fans in the audience who have come dressed as their favorite characters after having read all seven J.K. Rowling books and seen all eight Harry Potter movies, there emit many squeals of delight and welcoming sets of spontaneous applause as both beloved and loathed characters make their first appearances. For those few of us that have never read one of the books and may have only seen a couple of the movies here and there (I among that group), there are many references and details we certainly miss; but there is still a story that for all its complexities and fantastical elements is a story we can understand and readily relate to because it is one that, in the end, is universal to our own lives and experiences.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child opens nineteen years after the events of the final novel and eighth movie, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Still-bespeckled Harry (John Skelley) is now thirty-seven-years old and with his wife, Ginny (Angela Reed), is about to send on the extraordinary Hogwart Express train their son, Albus (Benjamin Papac), to his first year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Joining them is the other two of Harry’s former partners-in-high-adventure, the red-haired, still-boyish, and always jolly/joking Ron Weasley (Steve O’Connell) and his more serious and now Minister of Magic wife, Hermione Granger (a character magnificently reconceptualized from the original by Lily Mojekwu) as they too send off their daughter, Rose (Folami Williams), to Hogwarts. On the train, Albus quickly befriends the exuberantly friendly, amusingly nerdy and always talkative Scorpius Malfoy (Jon Steiger) – an unlikely bond since Scorpius is son of Harry’s long-time nemesis, Draco Malfoy (Lucas Hall).
The first three years at Hogwarts quickly pass before our eyes with scenes of the aspiring wizards practicing their nascent magical powers with varying degrees of beginner success. Both the boys experience ridicule and bullying from others – Albus because he does not live up to the god-like reputation of his famous father and Scorpius because of a whispered but persistent rumor that he is actually the son of the demon of all demons, the now-dead Lord Voldemort. The pressures of school and the ongoing tormenting by classmates lead both Albus and Scorpius to have increasing conflicts with their dads, with Harry and Albus each erupting in one powerful scene to denounce in no uncertain terms his relationship as father/son with the other.
Soon afterwards, Albus happens on to a scene where an aged, wheel-chair-bound Amos Diggory begs Harry to use a rumored-to-be Time-Turner to travel back to the point his son, Cedric, dies when he and Harry were once competing as boys in the Triwizard Tournament. Diggory (Charles Janasz) spews vitriolically after Harry’s refusal to help, “How many people have died for the boy that lived?” (i.e., Harry). Albus takes this accusation to heart (“How much blood is on my father’s head?”) and convinces a reluctant but loyal-to-the-core Scorpius to join him in the kind of daring and reckless adventure that could only be conceived by naïve but well-meaning teenagers (who also happen to know just enough wizardry to create all kinds of other-worldly havoc). The two – aided by the surprisingly eager and daredevilish niece and caretaker of Diggory, Delphi (Brittany Zeinstra) – find and steal the Time-Turner (through a host of illusions that wow us as audience). The trio then head back in time hopefully to change history, save Cedric, and bring him back to his crippled, grieving father – allowing Albus to thus correct the sins of his own father, Harry.
But of course this still being in only the first hour or so of this three-plus-hour night of magic-packed high jinks and adventure, the first attempt does not go quite as planned. On that and subsequent time-traveling journeys, demonic forces are unleashed, lives of the currently living are no more, and the two friends become separated for a five-second period that launches Scorpius into an alternative present-day. There, dark forces rule and there he proves to have enough hidden heroism and bravery to save the world as he once knew it and to rescue his bosom friend, Albus.
But wait: There is much more to come before this story’s final resolutions and redeemed relationships. Time and again we as audience are jaw-droppingly awed by the seemingly impossible transformations occurring on the vast stage before us and even in the auditorium all around us (Jamie Harrison, designer of illusions and magic). Director John Tiffany hardly gives us a chance to catch a breath as out-of-this world (literally) scenes unfurl by the dozens, each seemingly topping the last in amazement. Yet we do have a chance to pause and enjoy beautifully choreographed transitions where time and motion slow down as this large cast of thirty-seven move in coordinated swirls, bends, and twists up, down, around, and even over the stage floor (Steven Hoggett, Movement Director). Grammy-Award winner Imogen Heap surrounds us in mesmerizing flows of mystical, soulful, and at times almost holy music that enhance and embellish the moods and the themes of the story’s action. Katrina Lindsay’s costumes can only thrill the fans of the Potter movies as movies memories are successful jogged while the lighting and the sound designs of Neil Austin and Gareth Fry prove that the all-encompassing power and magic of the wide-screened cinema can definitely be replicated and even improved when produced live on stage.
In parts large and small, this cast never fails to deliver performances that capture the good and the evil, the fun and the fury, the conflict and the love of all the evening’s many and varied characters. Several actors have the delicious task of playing both the good and the evil, with prime examples being Shannon Cochran who is both the all-caring, sagely wise Headmistress McGonagall and the dark-intentioned, conniving Headmistress Umbridge. Likewise, Geoffrey Wade is the selfless and brave Professor Severus Snape and the epitome of evil, Lord Voldemort. Even Brittany Zeinstra is able to prove her diversity of excellent acting prowess as her Delphi undergoes a surprising and terrifying alteration.
But among so many fine performances of principals and cameos, the father-son duos of Harry and Albus as well as Draco and Scorpius in the end provide the most compelling moments of the evening. Each actor brings traits, quirks, and expressions to make his character memorable beyond the evening itself; and each portrays a journey of character development that is powerful, believable, and emotionally authentic. Together, they ensure this evening of immersive illusions is much more than just visual tricks. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the end becomes an evening of meaningful storytelling where the real magic is in the message it leaves us.
Rating: 5 E, MUST-SEE
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child continues through September 4, 2022 at the Curran Theater, 445 Geary Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available online at https://sfcurran.com/tickets/#box-office or by calling 415-358-1220 Tuesday – Friday, 4:00 – 7:30 p.m. and Saturday – Sunday, 11:30 a.m. – 7 p.m.
Photos Credit: Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade and Matthew Murphy