The Toronto Theatre Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
Pulled and compacted together, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child the stage show has been reborn, both on the road and on the Broadway and West End stage. Most magically, I might add, albeit only the West End production remains as the one and only place you can see the six-hour marathon that I was fortunate enough to take in on its press night on Broadway a number of years ago. Back then, it was a full day of theatrical genius, set over 4 acts and 6 hours with layers upon layers of cape-tastic excitement and wand-elishous magic that kept out-doing itself over and over again. It never faltered, for the whole six hours, raising the bar of adventure and connection, adding marvel upon marvel from one moment to the next.
When I saw it on Broadway, I would have referred to myself as just a mild-to-mediocre fan of the “Harry Potter” world. I’ve seen all the movies but had only read a few of the books. I did absolutely love the movies, especially as the characters and situations matured into very adult-themes exploring ideas of attachment and trauma that were absolutely compelling and emotionally engaging. The movies did the trick, inviting us into the universe of “Harry Potter” completely engrossing us in all of the details, the emotionality, and the magic. I couldn’t help myself be excited when I had the opportunity to see it on Broadway, and also when I saw that the new shortened stage version of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was coming to Toronto this June of 2022. I just had to get myself in for a look. I was forever curious, wanting to see if it held together now that it was a much shorter, yet still quite long 3 1/2 hour play. I was as excited as most in that crowd of eager audience members filing into the CAA Ed Mirvish Theatre in Toronto, thrilled to be returning, and hopeful that this version would only deepen the journey that I had already taken before.
The energy in the huge Toronto theatre was not as electric as I remembered that day on Broadway. Back then, everyone around us was on fire, pumped and bubbling with excitement. I remember a very well-dressed older woman sitting next to me, who was very self-contained, sitting quietly with her purse politely perched on her lap, but it only took one question to open the can of thrilled worms that was residing not so deep inside her. She was as stoked as basically anyone around us, and I quickly realized she was one huge fan, one who went out of her way to be in that theatre, on her own, to continue her journey into the magical world of “Harry Potter“. It’s pretty amazing if you ask me, that a children’s book series, even as widely known as this one, has the ability to bring all these people together, and with such force, and it was no different in Toronto.
The Ed Mirvish Theatre, much like the Broadway house where Harry Potter continues to amaze and mystify, has been closed to audiences through April for a pretty hefty renovation, specifically for this production. Cleared out, with seats set in storage and the carpet removed, the transformation was designed to create a more immersive environment for the open-ended run of the Tony Award-winning Potter play. New walls and seating were constructed for the built-in fantasy, with the venue reduced from a pre-pandemic seat count of around 2,200 to a more manageable 1,600. It still feels overwhelmingly expansive, that space, with the balcony still set quite a ways back, but we settled ourselves in, placing aside my own personal inner soul anxiousness and hoping with all hope that I might not be disappointed by the new shortened version.
And then it all began, with a synchronized crack and snap of a cape. What a magnificent visual adventure these talented people have come together to create; a brilliant lesson for the theatrical world of what is fantastically possible. Even those who are arriving less informed will be completely wrapped up in the intricate and moving tale of a young man’s journey to find himself outside of his parents, although one could not help but feel the strain to succeed inside the condensed version. There is a manic edge to the energy in the opening first act, as if the clock hanging above everyone’s head is ticking and they know they have to hurry in order to catch that train to Hogwarts. This time around that smaller time-framed turntable, there is a hurriedness that I don’t remember feeling before, and a tense compression of important facts and plot points thrown at us with such force that one really truly had to lean in and try to catch every little word or you might just be lost. It wasn’t easy, even for this man who had seen it all play out backward and forwards before. My strong suggestion, which I didn’t feel after watching the Broadway six-hour production, is one should try to refresh themselves with the world of “Harry Potter” by watching the first (2001’s “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone“), the fourth (2005’s “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire“), and the last two films (2010/2011’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 & Part 2). For sure, all of them if you have the time, and in order – but definitely, one should watch those four, as it will make it all easier to take in and understand without feeling you just might fall off your flying broom at any moment of distraction.
The other downside with the condensed version that is now playing in Toronto, on tour, and on Broadway (the West End production, I believe, is still the two-part six-hour version), is that the emotional connection to the characters feels rushed and very forced. It was more difficult to be pulled, particularly into the deep emotional arcs that were so brilliantly formulated in the longer version. It is still true that no one can sit in that theatre and be immune to this tale as it continues to resonate in a wildly engaging manner. But you don’t quite feel the tremendous emotional and personal attachment as I did back on Broadway many moons ago. The characters are all still there, and the plot flies forward with a force that can’t be ignored, but those softer more intimate moments feel like we weren’t set up for them as well, yet we are being told, almost forcibly, how we should feel in these moments.
Helping us all out is the Journey to the Eighth Story, an edited down version of the seven years of Harry Potter residing solidly in the program notes that beautifully encompass much of what is needed to be known. It relates the prophecy and a few very good things to know, like what ‘Death Eaters’ and ‘Dementors’ are. It tells us what the ‘Azkaban Fortress’ really is, what part does ‘Cedric Diggory’ play in all this, and the importance of the ‘Ministry of Magic’. This time around, I didn’t give myself adequate time pre-show to dig in deep, as I must admit that if given an entry quiz on the Potter universe, I probably would fail. But even though all of those pieces of this intricate puzzle are utterly important to fully understand all, one of the great things about author J. K. Rowling, playwright Jack Thorne (Let The Right One In), and director John Tiffany’s meticulously well-told tale is that all can enjoy this adventure, no matter what level of knowledge you have. So, much like the Moaning Myrtle moment, those in the know will revel in the connection like a good inside joke, smiling and clapping for the great job this team has done, and the others will be newly entertained by it all. The true beauty of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, whether long or short, is that everyone can enjoy and take great pleasure in the details as joyfully as that wonderfully portrayed Moaning Myrtle.
As meticulously directed by co-creator Tiffany (Broadway’s Once), no one is left behind and everyone is invited to this wondrous party as this production flies up high, somewhere between past visual and literary history and the present theatrical production presented here. Even inside of this speed-read version, they have found a way to give so many ‘tip of the hats’ to the books and the movies, sliding those staircases around the stage, totally saluting the magical creatives behind each and every one of those wondrous films, without ever really making anyone feel left out or confused as the story pulsates forward.
All I will say about this dynamic tale, and I won’t say much as it needs to be experienced in real-time to be really enjoyed, is that the energy never lags one bit – but I guess they really felt they couldn’t inside of this condensed version. The thrill and excitement of the audience are consistently electrifying, finding magic and wizardry throughout, as the team of creators and designers surpass everyone’s expectations within every moment. Utilizing every theatrical trick in the book, they have incorporated theatrical magic that goes back decades and advances it forward into this modern era. The number of “how did they do that” moments that rippled through the crowds is mind-boggling, as set designer Christine Jones (Roundabout’s Birthday Candles), lighting designer Neil Austin (Broadway’s Company), and Jamie Harrison (National Theatre’s Pinocchio), who is credited with illusions and magic, work overtime creating moment after moment that somehow defies gravity and realistic possibilities.
The snap of every cape, magnificently created by costume designer Katrina Lindsay (Broadway’s American Psycho) and sound designer Gareth Fry (The Encounter), together with the incredible work by movement director, Steven Hoggett (Broadway/West End’s The Curious Incident…) and his miraculous choreography, is worthy of every award associated with this production. The dynamic wand dance, the hat sound effects, and the warped wabble in the creation of time, to name only a few, makes us all sit up and take notice time after time. The music department, with music supervisor and arranger Martin Lowe (Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour) and composer and arranger, Imogen Heap, a self-produced British recording artist for the last twenty years, together, has created a unified sound and storyline that only enhanced every minute of this non-musical, even those moments that I could have sworn the actors were on the verge of breaking into an emotional song.
With all that said, the true weight of the wand lies in what really happens between the characters, and the actors do their best to deliver what is needed and never show any sign of being overwhelmed by the mechanics that surround them. They all rise to the occasion, doing their best to give us characterizations that aren’t too demonstrative or push the formula too hard. Some, like Brad Hodder’s Draco Malfoy, do feel like they are working a bit on over-time mode making sure we catch all the themes of disengagement and rage that live inside these characters, but the elements of childhood emotional development and engagement do find their way in, most likely fostering thousands of theoretical papers on parent/child attachment, need, and trauma found inside the play. The cast of professionals weaves a complex story that finds the intricate details of Harry Potter, played solidly by Trevor White (RSC’s Coriolanus), and his difficult and traumatic upbringing; a story that has some direct parallels to his arch-enemy, Lord Voldemort, aka Tom Riddle, played by Shawn Wright (Canadian Stage’s London Road), and his journey through loss and separation; an emotional conflict that can thrust a child down a complicated path towards symbolically good or evil. The complexities of this journey also find their way into drawing on the very foundations of devotion and support within a child’s life, particularly with Harry’s son Albus, well played by Luke Kimball (Netflix’s “Umbrella Academy“), and Draco’s son, Scorpius, beautifully portrayed by Thomas Mitchell Barnet (Stratford’s Treasure Island), and the potential that can develop from the continuous interaction between a child and their caregiver. Parenting is a difficult piece of magic in its own right, and nearly impossible to get right all the time, as seen in the complicated upbringing of the next generations of Wizards. The offspring of the now-grown heroes and heroines from the books and movies of Harry Potter are each set free within this stage show to create their own stories, running through that three-quartered wall into that mysterious land that somehow stands between train tracks, one that hopefully will shape their lives and their souls, just as it once did with Harry, Hermoine, and Ron.
White’s Harry Potter, with a strong connection to history and the past, is now an adult, a Minister, and a loving parent, married to the wonderfully grounded Ginney, played kindly and strongly by Trish Lindstrom (Mirvish’s Once). They have three children, the oldest: James Jr. (Lucas Meeuse), the youngest: Lily Jr. (Katie Ryerson), and the focal point of this story, the middle child, Albus Potter, played aggressively by the talented Kimball. The story is all his to explore, although Harry never is forgotten. Also fully present and thoroughly magnificent is Hermoine Granger, played brilliantly by the wonderful Sarah Afful (Soulpepper’s Orlando). As in the Broadway version, she is given quite an amazing gift. She is the only one who doesn’t look like the actor who played the part in the films, freeing her to create something that resembles the aura of the film but is more distinctive to her stature on stage. Hermoine is now running the show and married to her Hogwart’s sweetheart, Ron Weasley, played adoringly by Gregory Prest (Soulpepper’s Of Human Bondage). They also have a child, and a precocious young girl at that, naturally, by the name of Rose, played sassily by Hailey Lewis (Theatre Aquarius’s Hairspray).
Rose is one character that feels it got the short end of the wand in the shortening of this play, yet still she is worshipped, quite hilariously by Albus’s new best buddy and the unfortunate child of Harry’s other childhood nemesis, Draco Malfoy, Scorpius Malfoy. Barnet has a blast playing Scorpius, indulging us with all his awkwardness, and comes out as one of the best things in the Toronto production. As the bullied child of the legendary bully and enemy of the people is just delicious, crafting and fleshing out one of the most engaging young men in the whole Potter universe. His budding friendship (and dare I say it, love) with the troubled Albus is the foundation of this whole Cursed Child. Is Scorpius the one cursed? Or is it Albus? Or is there someone else we haven’t really clocked in yet as this cursed one? Time will tell in this beautiful re-creation where Time plays havoc on all that play and swim with it, bending itself forward and backward to our amazement. The hours of clock-turning psychological investigation into the meaning of parental love and friendship fly by, exciting and invigorating all that are blessed with a ticket to ride. If you don’t have yours, do what you can to get one. This piece of theater magic is well worth the effort.