Becoming a parent is the greatest transformative magic there is, in the world of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. The series of novels, movies, and now plays may be for children, but it delivers to the parents who read over their kids’ shoulders (or send their kids away for the weekend so they can read by themselves) a splendidly comforting message about the heroism of moms and dads. Parenthood ennobles a wizard: Parents sacrifice, in ways little and big, to help their children through life. It is parenthood that goes a little way toward redeeming villains Lucius and Narcissa Malfoy, desperate to save their son Draco from the evil Voldemort. Protecting our children makes us parents brave, bold, even fierce: In a series full of deaths, the only one written with the express purpose of inspiring cheers is that of bad-girl Bellatrix Lestrange, killed by mama bear Molly Weasley with a snarl of “NOT MY DAUGHTER, YOU BITCH!”
What’s most interesting about the plot of the two-part play of the series’ eighth story, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which opens Sunday on Broadway, is how Jack Thorne’s script (based on a story by Rowling, Thorne, and director John Tiffany) explores the way things can go terribly wrong between a well-meaning parent and a basically good kid. Harry Potter himself, now a middle-aged Ministry of Magic department head, spends much of the shows’ five-plus–hour combined running time bitterly at odds with his son Albus, a moody, angry Slytherin. The two even have an parent-child argument so apocalyptic that it feels ripped from the Lady Bird Cinematic Universe, during which Harry delivers a real unforgiveable curse: “Sometimes I wish you weren’t my son.”
It’s a moment that should have provoked gasps from the thousand-plus eager Potterheads who packed Broadway’s Lyric Theatre for a preview marathon performance of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts 1 and 2. Instead, the sappy little musical sting that punctuated the line demonstrated how Tiffany’s production leans heavily on stagecraft to bring the play’s often subtext-free lines to life. When it fails, it exposes what’s under the tricks: a story that can feel awfully mundane.
When it succeeds, though—in many of the play’s clever illusions and gorgeous special effects—that ingenious theatricality can make audiences believe that magic is real. And while a few of those coups de théâtre depend on the application of gobs of money and computer software—the dementors, for example, whose diaphanous, glowing cloaks make them look like zombie brides swooping over the audience, or a rippling video projection that seems to warp space-time across the entire stage when characters travel to the past—many of them, like the stage-light chiaroscuro that brings portraits to life, are gratifyingly low-tech. My favorite was the physical transformation that occurs when a hero drinks Polyjuice Potion, accomplished with only some gross sound effects, those voluminous wizard robes, and a pair of actors committed to making truly silly faces.
In Cursed Child, Harry (Jamie Parker), Hermione (Noma Dumezweni), and Ron (Paul Thornley) are the adults we saw them as at the end of the seventh book, working adult jobs and juggling familiar adult parenting concerns. (Though it’s a bit rich to hear them fretting about making time for their kids when they send them to a magical boarding school in a castle most of the year.) On his first day at Hogwarts, Albus Potter (Sam Clemmett) meets his best and only friend, Scorpius Malfoy (Anthony Boyle), son of his dad’s school-days nemesis. The unpopular boys set out to give themselves an adventure, and a lot of time-travel ensues, with results predictable to anyone who’s seen the McFly Trilogy.
The plot may feel familiar, but one rewarding aspect of the production is how unfamiliar its aesthetics will seem to those expecting a carbon-copy of the nine (and counting) movies set in Rowling’s Wizarding World. Perhaps only an author with the immense clout of Rowling—she’s a producer of the plays and reportedly could eventually receive 41 percent of every ticket sold—could launch a franchise extension that zags so determinedly from such popular films. The character design is just a bit weirder and wilder; Hagrid, for example, is bigger, shaggier, and more menacing than Robbie Coltrane ever made him. Certain tweaks seem like winks to devoted book readers, like when a character observes that Polyjuice Potion changes one’s voice to match the person whose appearance you’ve assumed—unlike in the movies, about which nerds like me have been complaining forever. (An even sillier change: Everyone pronounces Voldemort’s name as if he’s French, “Voldemore.”)
The canonical change that first caught everyone’s eye, long before the show premiered in London, is that in Cursed Child Hermione is black. It’s a welcome choice. Of course it instantly diversifies the wizarding world in a way that will certainly mean quite a bit to many young viewers. But it also helps visually separate the films’ Hermione—who, played by glamorous Emma Watson, became more iconic than her two best friends—from Dumezweni’s Hermione, who of the three most clearly has become an actual functional adult, given that she’s the Minister for Magic.
The other actors—many, like Dumezweni, holdovers from the show’s original London cast—struggle bravely with the script’s infelicitous mix of action and exposition, but they handle the big emotional moments like pros. Most fun of all the adults is Paul Thornley’s absurd, insecure Ron, who unlike his wife Hermione still closely resembles his old childish self. In a show that spends a lot of time in the gloom, Thornley brightens up every scene he’s in.
While Albus has the celebrity dad, it’s Scorpius who is the show’s breakout character. Nerdy and enthusiastic, Scorpius is sunny in the face of a total lack of encouragement from his scornful classmates. He’s played by the goofy, blinky Boyle with a rueful self-awareness that helps nearly pull off clunkers like “My geekiness is a-quiver!” At curtain call, I heard any number of kids in the crowd calling out to Scorpius; Boyle gave them a cheery wave.
As Harry, Jamie Parker is unexpectedly moving. He’s both a complicated adult and the dear boy we’ve read about: a small man wearing a big jacket (and smart pants with a little wand-holster stitched into the leg) whose wig slyly suggests that famous lightning-bolt scar is only going to look worse as Harry’s hairline recedes. Like young Harry, his temper is quick to fire, and Parker particularly focuses the scenes with Albus, making big, visible emotional choices that play to the back row of the theater yet still feel appropriate to the momentous task of raising a teenage boy. “I’d do anything for him,” Harry insists, but as his wife Ginny reminds him, Harry Potter would do anything for anybody. Harry’s task, winningly small in this big, big play, is to do something just for his son, to “love him specifically.”
So in what way, if any, should you experience this big, big play? Save yourself a couple hundred bucks, I say—tickets to each performance can cost as much as $286, though many are $40 or less—and skip Part 1. Read the published script for the first part, then buy tickets to Part 2, which contains all the production’s most wondrous special effects: the dementors, the Patronus, Dolores Umbridge’s wig, and some others I won’t spoil. Skipping Part 1 means you get to miss some painfully clunky exposition (“Father-son issues, I have them,” Scorpius blurts out within a minute of his first appearance) and the show’s worst set piece (the 1,000th example in the Harry Potter universe of why riddles make for easily crackable network security).
You’ll still get to eyeball the $10 million refurbishment they gave the Lyric just for this show, with its phoenix sconces, custom carpeting, and still-somehow-too-small ladies’ room. And you’ll still get the chance to commune with the fans who wear their Slytherin scarves and “It’s ‘LeviOsa,’ not ‘LevioSA’ ” T-shirts and remain so charged with feeling for this story, years after first encountering Harry and his friends, that they cheer for the stern preshow warning to turn off your Muggle devices.
To commune with 1,000-plus fervent Harry Potter fans is to feel—in the best, most astonishing moments of this well-meaning, often silly, sometimes flat-out bad extravaganza—why theater is a wonderful medium for this ageless franchise. And to bring your own children, to see their delight at a show that pulls out all the stops to wow them, is to feel a kind of parental heroism, albeit one reserved mostly for the wealthy. None of us are wizards, but at least we can wait in a four-hour online queue and buy our children some magic.