Still some Magic Left: ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’ San Francisco at The Curran


“The wizards represent all that the true ‘muggle’ most fears: They are plainly outcasts and comfortable with being so. Nothing is more unnerving to the truly conventional than the unashamed misfit!”
– JK Rowling, interviewed by Margaret Weir, “Of Magic and Single Motherhood”, Salon (13 March 1999)

Three things linger in my mind after having seen Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

The first is about the music. If you’ve been reading my reviews for a while now, you may or may not know that I don’t research films or plays too heavily before I review them. I’ll get the basics, but I want to go in as “raw” as possible, so as to be as objective as I can. That’s how I walking into this show not knowing that some of the music as provided by Imogen Heap. Imagine my surprise when Part 1 of this show featured a haunting ethereal rendition of “Hide & Seek” (a song that was haunting and ethereal to begin with).

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Scorpius Malfoy (Jon Steiger) and Albus Potter (Benjamin Papac) during their otherwise inauspicious introduction. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The second was the casting. The original British production received simultaneous praise and scorn for its choice to cast a Black woman in the role of the now-adult Hermione Granger. The casting has carried over into multiple other productions, including this one – much the same way it’s considered traditional to cast a girl as Peter Pan. It raises an eyebrow at first, but then one forgets about it. But… should we? As it happens, I found myself seated next to ABC-7 anchor Kristen Sze for this opening day show. Upon finding out that I was writing a review, she asked me about the supposed color-blind casting. She questioned how “color-blind” the casting really was when only two characters (Hermione and her daughter Rose) were PoC in prominent roles. All of the other characters, she noted, still resemble their Caucasian source material versions, and not a single Asian character was anywhere to be seen. Much like the belated announcement of Dumbledore’s homosexuality – which has yet to be made canon in any film or play – one has to wonder if Rowling was just doing it to score points.

The third was the magic. Recently, I saw a Wired video featuring Penn Jillette answering questions about professional magicians. Around the 10:25 mark, he’s asked “How do magicians entertain magicians?” He simply answers, “With magic.” I’ve had the pleasure of knowing quite a few talented illusionists in my day, and – as Jillette also mentions in that video – there’s a visceral effect that comes with watching magic live that just can’t be recreated with cinematic CGI. Magic isn’t just a scant detail of Rowling’s Wizarding World, it’s the whole reason said world has its name. The illusions seen in this show (created by Jamie Harrison, assisted by Chris Fisher, and coached locally by Andrew Evans) run the gamut of classic theatre movement work (fully costumed actors moving about set pieces) to breathtaking feats that have to be seen to be believed.

And it all hinges on a story that serves as a love letter from JK Rowling to her fandom.

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Albus Potter is the son of The Boy Who Lived. It’s pretty hard to shine when you’re in a shadow cast that wide, even harder when you attend your father’s alma mater, but fail to live up to the high standard he set. Such a pariah is young Albus that his only friend is the school’s other pariah: Scorpio Malfoy, son of his father’s childhood rival. They both know what it’s like to live with the reputation of their (in)famous fathers.

In wanting to escape those shadows, the boys propose something drastic. Something outrageous. Something that will not only affect their lives, but the lives of the entire Wizarding World as we know it.

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Hermione (Yanna McIntosh), Ron (David Abeles), and Harry (John Skelley) go to some unlikely places to find out what the boys are up to. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

…and that’s all I’ll reveal about the plot. Seriously, though this show runs in two parts – each of which is roughly 2 ½ hours – I don’t think I can say more than the above without getting into major spoilers. I mean, even the cast roster in the show’s Playbill urges the reader not look over it until they’ve seen the show in its entirety. Old characters come back (mostly via crucial flashback), new characters are introduced, and not even is whom they claim to be at first. And all of it for the sake of getting the largest audience reaction possible. When Albus and Scorpius venture into the Hogwarts girl’s restroom only to be greeted by Moaning Myrtle (Brittany Zeinstra), the applause in the Curran was akin to celebrity appearing on a sitcom (complete with dodgy innuendos).

And y’know what? There’s nothing wrong with that. Every moment of this show was meant to take your favorite Wizarding World characters and put them smack-dab in a story that was all about operatic heights. There are notable moments of genuine nuance (the aforementioned “Hide & Seek” moment being one, a mention of “Your dad loves you” in the Forbidden Forest being another), but this is a show that swings for the fences with each and every line. It’s the whole reason the producers chose to stage it at the Curran, which we SF natives recall as being “The House of The Phantom” for five years. It’s meant to be a bona fide crowd-pleaser.

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The Trolley Witch (Katherine Leask) hinders the escape plans of Albus (Benjamin Papac) and Scorpious (Jon Steiger). Photo by Matthew Murphy.

And it is. I’ve heard hardcore Potter fans lament that characters both look and act like their cinematic counterparts rather than their literary sources (except Hermione, who looks like neither). But then, the films had a wider reach than the books ever did – and the books pulled in billions all on their own. The films built off Rowling’s descriptions to create a visual shorthand meant to evoke immediate recognition from an audience. You can’t fault them for succeeding.

If the show is to be faulted, it’s for the way the first act of the first half seems uncomfortably rushed. It begins at Platform 9 ¾, where we left off at the end of The Deathly Hallows, only to speed through three years of Albus’ time at Hogwarts with break-neck speed. This opening is in a terrible hurry and refuses to let up at all. When we finally get to a “quiet” scene in Harry’s Ministry office talking to Hermione, I wrote in my notes how relieved I was to have time to breathe at last. Speaking of Harry, John Skelley is other sore thumb in the production. In a show that features wizard battling with flamethrowing wands and cast members sucked through phone booths, Skelley somehow manages to be “too much” in his depiction of Harry. Every word is shouted at an ear-splitting volume that goes beyond “projecting” into just being “hammy”. A few of the other actors come close to this, but they never go as far as Skelley. Hopefully he’ll find a better balance as the show goes on – this was Opening Day, after all.

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Hogwarts has taken a decidedly darker turn of late. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Lest you think the show is all over-the-top spectacle, I will say that the most surprising thing was how it humanized the character of Draco Malfoy. I haven’t read the books, but the films portrayed him as the archetypal “school bully” to be Harry’s foil. This show gives him the layered insight that was so sorely lacking in those interpretations. Draco’s dad was the equivalent Wizarding equivalent of a White supremacist, which isn’t the best role model for someone who’s now a father himself. His shared fear with Harry, that their sons will become like them for all the worst reasons, is relatable and revealing. Best of all, it doesn’t feel forced. It’s moments like this that do well to ground the show when all the outrageousness happens.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a show that revels in its grandiose scale. It begins with a man plucking a floating hat from mid-air and end its first half with Dementors floating over a terrified audience. It takes a story with near-world-ending consequences and breaks it down to a tale about fathers not being able to communicate with their sons. It features one of the oldest stage techniques – cast members moving set pieces – stage a lovely “ballet” with moving staircases. It’s a big show that leaves a big impact, including on me.

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Real, live Dementors. That is all. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

As I sat waiting for the show to begin, I couldn’t help but look up from my mezzanine seat to the Curran chandelier above. I never got to see Phantom during its legendary run, so I don’t know what it was like to watch that chandelier drop. When I wasn’t being wowed by the entire theatre being lit up with blacklights to reveal messages all around (think The Simpsons’ Shining parody or that scene from David Fincher SF-set The Game), I wondered what this meant for the Curran. I am neither the first person to ask this aloud, nor will I be the last. Still, the resurrected Curran became something of a Trojan Horse in the middle of SF’s main theatre houses. With the backing of Carole Shorenstein, it had mainstream money for a mainstream venue as it reveled in fantastic indie fare like Fun Home, The Jungle, and several captivating “Evening with…” talks. Shows like that won’t get major stage time with a corporate show like this taking up valuable theatrical real estate.

Having said that… the future isn’t set in stone. It’s a philosophy that’s kept me a proud part of this city and its arts community for so long. Hell, it’s the theme of this show. Even as Oscar-winning directors kvetch about the proliferation of superhero films, they seem to forget that it was the same sort of dismissible mainstream fair that influenced them, the French New Wave, and who knows how many more. I see a lot of theatre and can tell you with no hesitation that finances are no indication of quality.

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The Potter Family at Platform 9 3/4. James (William Bednar-Carter), Lily (Natalie Adele Schroeder), Harry (John Skelley), Ginny (Angela Reed), and Albus (Benjamin Papac). Photo by Matthew Murphy.

But Harry Potter and The Cursed Child is an incredibly entertaining. I don’t know exactly what it means for the future of the Curran, but I had a fun time watching it.

GRADE:                                                            B

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is scheduled to run until 12th of July 2020 at the Curran Theater in San Francisco.
Part 1 runs roughly 2 hours and 40 minutes with a single 20-min. intermission.
Part 2 runs roughly 2 hours and 35 minutes with a single 20-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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