Theatrical magic is the blessing in shorter Cursed

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ABOVE: Harry Potter (John Skelley,left), Hermione Granger (Lily Mojekwu, center), and Ron Weasley (Steve O’Connell) are up to some new tricks in the San Francisco production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child at the Curran Theater. BELOW: Dementors descend to terrorize both characters and audience. Photos: Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade


Amid clanking bottles of butter beer, confetti canons and celebratory words from the mayor, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the live theater component of the Potter Empire, has officially reopened at San Francisco’s Curran Theater.

Already a hit in London, New York and elsewhere around the world, Cursed opened late in 2019 and then was shuttered by the pandemic. During that time, creators J.K. Rowling (the author of the seven Potter novels), playwright Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany decided to downsize their show. What was originally a five-plus-hour two-play experience has now become a 3 1/2-hour single play.

I saw and loved the original two-part production in December 2019 (oh, those sweet, unmasked days of yore) – read my review here – but wondered if the experience wouldn’t benefit from being shorter. Turns out, it is more potent in one sitting.

The new, condensed version re-opened Feb. 24 amid much hoopla re-directing attention to San Francisco’s beleaguered Union Square area and theater district, and the show is in sterling condition. Everything that was wonderful about the original is still here and strong – it’s just swifter and a little more dense. The best news is that all those incredible displays of theatrical magic are still dazzling and thrilling and chilling and mesmerizing. The soul-sucking dementors, for instance, are as horrifying as they are beautiful, and if you’ve ever wondered what it might actually feel like to slip through the cracks of time, hold tight. The effect, incorporating projections, sound and (probably) actual magic, is stunning.

But it’s not all mind-boggling effects bringing things like floo powder, wand battles and magic spells to life. Thorne’s script (based on an original story by Rowling, Tiffany and Thorne) wastes no time in getting us up to speed on Harry Potter’s life 19 years after the action of the final novel. Harry (John Skelley) and Ginny Weasley (Angela Reed) have two boys, James (William Bednar-Carter) and Albus Severus (Benjamin Papac), at Hogwarts. Harry, who remains the most famous and beloved of wizards, works at the Ministry of Magic, and his legacy weighs heavily on his younger son.

Albus is a loner and does not enjoy his time at Hogwarts. Save for his friendship with Scorpius Malfoy (Jon Steiger), son of Draco (Lucas Hall), it’s all kind of a teen-angsty nightmare but with flying broomsticks. Being the son of “the boy who lived” involves a whole lot of pressure to live up to the Potter name, and Albus feels he’s nowhere near up to that task. It doesn’t help that Harry and Albus do not get along, thus setting the stage (literally) for a play that is primarily about fathers and sons.

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What the play does exceptionally well is mine the Potter mythology for insider delights and for hefty emotional connections. Beloved characters from the books pop up here and there, and though there’s plenty to enjoy for the Potter novice, it’s a much richer experience if you know why the audience collectively sighs when a certain someone whom we haven’t seen for a very long time, steps onto the stage.

Though Cursed Child is not a musical, it has the highly choreographed and fluid feel of a musical. Credit movement director Steven Hoggett for creating that flow – and all that robe swirling – and for designing one of the show’s most beautiful moments: a duet for rolling staircases that evokes the Escher-like Hogwarts architecture.

There is an emotional heart to this story amid all the fiery spectacle, and the actors are fully committed to the drama (or, in the case of Steve O’Connell’s Ron Weasley, the snide comedy). Skelley’s Harry is kind of a jerk for much of the play – a man pressured by his past and his celebrity status and his bureaucratic job – and there’s one intensely emotional scene in particular that serves as a reminder of just how much trauma Harry has been through in his nearly 40 years. I wish Hermione (the wonderful Lily Mojekwu) had more to do. Maybe the next stage epic – and there should be one – will focus on her and her daughter, Rose (Folami Williams).

The emotional core of the show belongs to Papac and Steiger as Albus and Scorpius, unlikely friends and even unlikelier heroes. Both actors manage to be believable, ultimately lovable teens whose father issues bond them and then compel them to behave rashly before doing some serious growing up.

The mix of wizarding razzmatazz and genuine emotion will be familiar to fans of the books (and the movies), but everything in the theater (effects AND emotions) feels at a higher volume and intensity. And that’s a glorious – you might even say genuinely magical – feeling. In this wacko world, it’s almost a relief to to escape into a theatrical epic for 3 1/2 hours and experience the satisfying thrill of magic empowering good vanquish bad.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child continues through Sept. 4 at the Curran Theater, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $59-$199 (subject to change). Visit harrypottertheplay.com for information.
Covid information: All ticketholders 16 years of age and older who are eligible must present proof of full vaccination with booster. All patrons, regardless of age, are required to wear masks inside the theater at all times when not actively eating or drinking. For more information, click here.


Harry Potter grows up in magical Cursed Child

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With productions in London and New York, the two-part epic Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has opened in San Francisco at the Curran Theatre. The story, focusing on the next generation of magical offspring, was created with J.K. Rowling, playwright Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany. Photos by Matthew Murphy

Harry Potter, known as “the boy who lived,” has continuously found life on the pages of seven best-selling novels, on the screen in eight blockbuster films, in theme parks both in Florida and California and now on stage in an epic two-part, five-plus-hour play that has to be seen to be believed.

With successful productions of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child running in London and New York, the wizard’s theatrical reach has extended to the Curran Theater in San Francisco, where it will undoubtedly run for years to come. Otherwise, why would theater management have gone to the trouble of decking out the building with Harry Potter-themed carpeting?

The smartest thing Potter author J.K. Rowling did when considering an adaptation of her characters to the stage was to connect with director John Tiffany, whose work in shows like Once and Black Watch was incredibly dazzling without being overwhelming because he never loses sight of human scale and emotion within the spectacle.

Rowling, along with Tiffany and playwright Jack Thorne provide the eighth chapter of the Potter saga by jumping ahead 19 years after the action of the final Potter book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. So the story is really about the next generation of young wizards – and how they’ve either been encouraged or messed up by the previous generation. In other words, it’s about the inexorable passage of time. But because this is a magical world, there’s no guarantee that time will move in anything resembling a linear fashion.

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So with a story about parents and children, or fathers and sons to be more specific, Rowling, Thorne and Tiffany pull out all the stops in the creation of an absolutely dazzling, exhilarating, gob-smacking theatrical experience. The less you know about it the better, but know that in addition to Harry, Hermione and Ron, you’ll see a number of characters from the Potter-verse, some beloved, some not so much. It helps to have some knowledge of Potter lore – if you know who Voldemort is (or was), you’re doing pretty well – although this new story is specific enough and provides enough exposition to sustain interest for those who don’t know a horcrux from a Hufflepuff.

Could this story have been told in a four-hour show? Probably, but there’s something very satisfying about settling in for the long haul, and the protracted length allows for more dazzling special effects and tricks and mind-boggling theatricality than you can possibly imagine. Tiffany’s whole design team has done remarkable work here, but to my mind, the two stars are Jamie Harrison, credited with illusions and magic, and lighting designer Neil Austin, whose razor-sharp works allows those illusions to work in such beguiling ways. Of course, Christine Jones’ set and Katrina Lindsay’s costumes are part of the trickery as well, but also a huge part of the beauty. This is a stunning show in every way from beginning to end – it’s almost like you can’t watch it hard enough for fear of missing something. There are images in these plays that are among the most strikingly beautiful I have ever seen in a theater.

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The less said about the plot the better because there’s so much joy of discovery and surprise in this tale of acceptance and honesty (it’s not exactly The Iceman Cometh, but it’s got some emotional heft). Tiffany’s cast is reliably sturdy to deliver the laughs and the deeper emotional moments, and that very Rowling-esque sense of story propulsion is felt throughout, especially when the larger group bonds together to fight a common enemy. The friendship between Albus Severus Potter (played by Benjamin Papac) and Scorpius Malfoy (Jon Steiger is especially potent, and both actors bring a welcome angsty teen edginess to their performances.

The interesting thing about Cursed Child as the eighth Potter story is that it feels organic and heartfelt in a way the Fantastic Beast prequel movies have not. Those feel like a money grab overloaded with CGI effects. These plays are filled with storytelling, right-before-your-eyes magic and good, old-fashioned theatrical dazzle. These plays are proof that there is real magic in the world, and it resides – perhaps not surprisingly – in the realm of live theater.


FOR MORE INFORMATION
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by Jack Thorne; based on an original new story by J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne and John Tiffany. Tickets on sale through June 20, 2019. $59-$289. Curran Theater, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. harrypotteronstage.com

Depth, beauty surge through glorious Once

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Stuart Ward is the guy and Dani de Waal is the girl in the national tour of the Tony Award-winning musical Once based on the movie of the same name. Below: The company of Once performs the transcendent number “Gold” at the end of Act 1. Photos by Joan Marcus

If every movie-to-musical transformation were as soulful and creative as Once the state of the Broadway musical would be in a much better place.

There would seem to be no less likely candidate for the Broadway treatment than the sweet and modest 2007 Irish indie film Once about a frustrated singer/songwriter in Dublin and the Czech immigrant who changes his life. It’s a love story and not a love story, a musical and not a musical. Above all else, it’s intimate and delicate, like a slice of life infused with passionate music transferred with great love to the big screen.

Fans of the movie (which nabbed a best song Oscar for songwriters/stars Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová’s “Falling Slowly”) let out a collective groan when it was announced that Once would be turned into a Broadway musical. Kicklines across the River Liffey? Or worse, riverdancing through the countryside?

One of the great joys of Once, the musical, is that there’s nary a trace of crass Broadway commercialism in the telling of this still-intimate friendship/love story. Director John Tiffany, choreographer Steven Hoggett and music supervisor/orchestrator Martin Lowe bring such sensitivity, joy and genuine emotion to their adaptation that it turns out to be – perhaps it’s sacrilege to say – better than the original.

Once scored 11 Tony nominations in 2012 and won eight, including best musical, which virtually ensures a national tour. So now we have the road company of Once settling in at the Curran Theatre as part of the SHN season.

As on Broadway, Bob Crowley’s set is a rather impressionistic version of a Dublin pub (lots of lights and tarnished mirrors), and as on Broadway, the pub is open before the show and at intermission to sell beer and wine. If you go early enough before the show, be sure to enjoy your drink on stage (the “bouncers” limit the number of folks on stage so do get there early). About 10 minutes before the show begins, the actor-musicians arrive and begin playing Irish pub songs.

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This is all part of director Tiffany’s genius method of closing the gap – literally and figuratively – between actors and audience. He wants his audience active and involved, so when he asks us to hold multiple realities, we do so eagerly. The performers are characters in the story and they’re musicians. They’re specific people and they’re all people. The pub is, in fact, a pub, and it’s also an apartment crowded with Czech immigrants, a vacuum repair shop, a recording studio, the office of a bank loan officer, a hilltop, a beach. Some musical numbers are actual musical numbers performed in a specific place, like on a street corner or at a pub’s open-mic night. Others are pure expression of feeling and are physical manifestations of emotion.

It may sound complicated, and it is to a degree, but it’s completely accessible because Tiffany’s staging and Hoggett’s movement are so clear and convey so much. The same is true of Lowe’s arrangements, beautifully performed by the ensemble on guitars, violins, cellos, accordions and percussion. The sound is warm and passionate and so intense you sometimes want to join the dancing and the playing because watching isn’t enough (whether or not you’re a dancer or a musician hardly seems to matter).

The number at the end of Act 1, “Gold” (written by Fergus O’Farrell), is a prime example of why Once works so well and on so many levels. The set-up involves the Girl (Dani de Waal) pushing her new friend (Stuart Ward) to perform one of his songs on a pub’s small stage. She believes he is “stopped” in his life, the result of a bad break-up, and she senses that his music is the way to un-stop him. He begins singing the song, and she’s mesmerized by him. The audience begins to play along with the singer, and as the passion builds, the musicians rise from their chairs and dance and play. It’s electric and stunning and conveys a sense of what it feels like to be caught up in music and what it might feel like to be creating great music with a group. It’s like Once itself: there’s synchronicity, true connection, glorious music and utter transcendence.

[bonus interview]
I talked to director John Tiffany and choreographer Steven Hoggett for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Once continues through July 13 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40-$210. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.

Bagpipes, battles and bloody brilliance in Black Watch

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One of many dynamic theatrical moments in Black Watch involves a vivid telling of the history of one of Scotland’s oldest Highland Regiments. Black Watch, a production of the National Theatre of Scotland and presented locally by American Conservatory Theater, tells the stories of Black Watch soldiers who served tours of duty in Iraq. The multimedia production runs through June 16 in the Drill Court of the Mission Armory. Below: Black Watch involves stories, marches, songs and reenactments of life in Iraq during wartime. Photos by Scott Suchman

It’s interesting that the horrors of war – far away from the battlefields – tend to turn into a videogame on the big screen and small screen, with the camera becoming a shield from the action. But somehow, when the theater deploys its magic, you can come closer to feeling what it might be like, moment to moment, if you were really there with the soldiers. In recent memory, two plays have captured attention around the world for exploring the physical and emotional aspect of war, and both are so fully works of live theater you couldn’t imagine experiencing them in other form.

The first is War Horse, which uses a giant horse puppet to suspend audience disbelief and put them into World War I trenches in France. The movie of the play isn’t anywhere near as powerful as the play because it’s so literal. The other is Black Watch, a production of the National Theatre of Scotland, that has been touring for seven years and putting audiences into the headspace and the Iraq front lines held by members of the Black Watch, one of Scotland’s oldest Highland Regiments that was sent to bolster the American war effort in Iraq in 2004.

Director John Tiffany, choreographer Steven Hoggett and writer Gregory Burke use the full arsenal of theatrical tricks – dance, song, multimedia, light and sound – to create an experience that is part documentary, part fantasia and fully immersive to convey a sense of what it was really like – and perhaps more importantly, what it really felt like – in that hellish, explosive desert.

Black Watch has been around the world and back (not unlike the actual Black Watch regiment, established in 1745 and sent to fight battles in lands far, far from Scotland), and it finally marched into San Francisco courtesy of American Conservatory Theater, which had the stroke of creative genius to produce the show in the Armory Community Center in the Mission District, an enormous historic building (with a creek running through basement and a porn studio within its vast expanse) with a drill court perfectly suited to military spectacle. With stadium seating on either side of the court – it feels like a more intimate football field, though the bleachers are much more comfortable – the stage feels like it could house a concert or a circus, which, in a way it does both. If Cirque du Soleil were still interesting, it would be staging something as classic and inventive as Black Watch.

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There’s nothing really new in the two-hour, no-intermission show, but the way Tiffany, Hoggett and Burke combine elements is what keeps it interesting and makes it so emotionally powerful. There are scenes with a writer interviewing the soldiers in pool hall back home. As they recount their time in Iraq, the action shifts to Camp Dogwood in what is known as the “triangle of death.” It is also, as one soldier notes, “the ancient land of Babylon, birthplace of civilization.” Well there’s not much civil about it anymore. The soldiers have barely arrived before the onslaught of mortar and rockets begins. But then there’s the boredom of nothing happening. One soldier says a good title for a movie about the Iraq war would be “Sweating Without Moving.”

The sound design by Gareth Fry is certainly loud, but it has to be if we’re going to get any sense of what it’s like to be near actual falling bombs. Designer Colin Grenfell’s lights flash, and the sound of explosions rattle the Armory.

But it’s not all realism, and that’s where Black Watch really takes off. There are surprises that bend reality, but it’s always in service of exploring the soldiers’ lives, whether it’s the external danger and fighting or the internal terror, loneliness, boredom, deep camaraderie or homesickness. One wordless scene involves soldiers reading letters from home. Their responses become gestural, repeated movements that somehow convey everything we need to know. Another standout sequence regales us with the history of the Black Watch, with the storyteller being dressed and undressed in the ever-evolving uniform while being tossed around by his fellow soldiers.

The 10 men in the cast are fully up to the task of Hoggett’s rigorous movement, not to mention all the demands of moving things around on Laura Hopkins’ efficient set (she does amazing things with a pool table). The march, they climb, they haul, they brawl – and their final dance, sort of a military tattoo that expresses the repeating cycle of service and death and dedication in military life – is breathtaking and leaves you wondering not about the abilities or the extraordinary work of the soldiers but about the leaders who put that good work to such dubious use.

Cammy (Stuart Martin), who is sort of the de facto narrator and emotional center of the story, repeatedly says that these highly trained soldiers aren’t really able to utilize that training in Iraq. The rules are different there. They are mortared mercilessly, yet they can’t fire back. And there’s absolutely no way to deal with suicide bombers. All this, Cammy says, “And for what?” A sergeant calls Iraq, “the biggest Western foreign policy disaster ever.” Watching the futility of the warfare on display here it’s hard to disagree.

These soldiers are not painted as generic heroes but as complicated men/boys who are proud of their service and prone to foul language and childish games like “toby tag” (with toby being a penis and the tagging being a slap on another soldier’s face). But you come to feel for them and want them to succeed. The sheer energy and vitality and likability of the cast goes a long way toward making the grueling experience of war a captivating, emotionally powerful theatrical experience.

[bonus interview]
I talked to Black Watch director John Tiffany for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the interview here (may require subscription).

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Black Watch, presented by the National Theatre of Scotland and American Conservatory Theater, continues through June 16 at the Drill Court in the Armory Community Center, 333 14th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $100. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org

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