Harry Potter is quite a juggernaut of fantasy literature at its core, but then wrap it with the movies, the theme parks, the endless merchandising... it's huge. It seemed both inevitable and unlikely that there could ever be a play around these characters, and here we are, with two plays, technically, that span an enormously epic story.
I certainly love the movies, and I've read a book and a half, which is to say that I'm a fan in a non-committal way. I won't go to Universal Studios and buy a wand or anything. At that level of fandom, I realize that there is enormous canon to draw from across all those books, and I've recently learned that people who know those details have some issues with the play. Cool story, bro, but I'm not going to consider any of that, and just focus on the storytelling, production and performance.
Cursed Child takes place many years after the movies, where Harry and Ginny have married and had kids, as have Ron and Hermione. As it turns out, Draco Malfoy had a child, too, though his wife died at some point. That child, Scorpius, and the Potters' second son, Albus, are at the core of the story. They're both socially awkward and have challenges in making friends, so it only seems appropriate that they end up being friends from the start, meeting on the Hogwart's Express. Both ultimately are suffering from daddy issues, because Scorpius' dad was a dick, and Albus' dad is Harry Freakin' Potter, the boy who lived, and how do you live up to that?
I won't spoil the plays and go deeper than that. The story arc is epic and interesting, and each of the first three acts ends with an epic cliffhanger. The themes around external expectations motivate a lot of bad decisions made by the kids, and while centered in the magical universe of Harry Potter, they translate pretty well to the real world. There are fundamental issues with acceptance and fit, into communities as a child and an adult. The boys have genuinely good intentions, largely designed to win the approval of their fathers and their peers, but it's a familiar story in how these actions lead to unintended consequences. For the parents, there's also a fair amount of time reconciling what it means to be a parent and protect your child from suffering. Without giving too much away, Harry and Dumbledore's painting have a pretty deep conversation about suffering as a key part of the human condition, and the level to which you can or should protect your child from that. As the father of a socially awkward kid with ASD, I live with this challenge daily.
But let's be real, this stuff is all wrapped in the best fantasy packaging. The almost universal appeal of Harry Potter comes in part from the fact that there are adult themes surrounded by accessible action and magic that kids appreciate. The plays work at that level, and J.K. Rowling's story treatment was adapted very well into a stage show. It has the twists and the depth that the books do, and it better because it's going to require about six hours of your time and about $400 for a decent seat at both shows.
The production is at a level rarely seen on stage, but before I get to that, let me draw out the one negative. The show is scored with music from Imogen Heap, and if you know me, you know I've been a fan for about 15 years. She's a genius. That said, the music used in the show is not original to the show, and is mostly a series of arrangements derived from her albums. If you aren't familiar with her work, this is a non-issue, but for me, it quite literally took me out of the moment on several occasions. There's this whole interpretive dance thing early in the first act to "Cycle Song," and I was like, "What is this?" But worse, some of those songs remind me of difficult times, like "The Moment I Said It," which to me always sounded like a break up song and reminds me of getting divorced. Hearing this music in this context was jarring, and I expect it would be for any fan of her music.
With that out of the way, the producers clearly are expecting a lengthy run, because they renovated the Lyric Theatre from top to bottom. That means "H" imprints on the carpet and a general decor that feels right for the material, including some stunning light fixtures inside. (I don't know if the WB film teams had any hand in this.) What I found particularly interesting is how tidy the auditorium is. Most New York venues are nearly a hundred years old, and you'll find some trusses in front of the proscenium with lighting and sound. You'll find none of that here, and most of it, save for a few fixtures here and there, are well hidden. I say mostly, because there are subwoofers sitting largely in the open around the perimeter of the room. If you look carefully, you might even spot some cable rigging for something I won't talk about here, but it'll blow your mind. Even the lobby is quite beautiful, and the merchandise is changed out before the end of the first part (second act).
The scene design is remarkably simple, with arches that invoke Hogwarts, and a pair of stair sets are used quite liberally in many scenes. When things do come on and off, I can't tell if it was all ensembleists (do you call them that in a non-musical?) or stage hands, because they would flip their capes as they moved with objects on or off stage. Being a semi-permanent installation, they are able to use trap doors and other things in the stage, but overall it's brilliantly simple movement from scene to scene.
Lighting helps set the scene and make detailed sets less necessary. I've seen this a lot in newer shows in the last two years, where areas of the stage are framed in lighting to direct focus, and in this show, narrow bands of light from the upstage floor would frame some things that were above the stage (you knew there would be flying). There are a couple of particularly dramatic lighting effects, one with a classic black light trick, another by using video projection mapped to 3D surfaces and fantastic sound design. The lighting also helps to keep you from seeing things that might reveal the tricks used for visual effects.
And wow are the visual effects impressive. The things you've seen in the movies are accomplished on stage, sometimes in obvious ways, sometimes not. Flying is rarely that impressive, but there are other gravity defying things, people being sucked into bookcases, glowing things, inanimate objects moving around, and my favorite, people transforming into other people. Some of these effects get applause in the middle of a scene.
The bottom line is that this show is everything you may love about the movies, but in real life. Even if you're not a fan, I think the story is compelling enough and the stagecraft so incredible that you'd have to be dead inside not to walk away impressed. If you see it, just be sure to plan you dinner, because the window isn't short, but it's New York, and you shouldn't wing it (we went back to Bryant Park, where there's a Whole Foods).