It makes perfect economic sense that the producers of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child made the mid-pandemic decision that when the show returned to its multiple international stages in late 2021 and early 2022, it would do so as a slimmed down, one-night affair.
Not only does the trend of two-parter Broadway shows seem like a pre-pandemic indulgence and probably not a sustainable one, but the theater world has been grappling in the last year with the fear that audiences might not come back fast enough to fill seats. And discouraging them by making them buy two sets of tickets to see a complete show — which at Broadway prices would run into the thousands of dollars for a family of four — doesn't seem wise.
But, the two-part, five-plus-hour original version of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which took home the Tony Award for Best Play in 2018, was a grand production with a novelistic scope. The play introduces us to a new generation of Hogwarts students, with the progeny of Harry, Ginny, Ron, Hermione, and Draco Malfoy all now students. And it brings us to a later moment in the wizarding world in which Harry and Hermione now work for the Ministry of Magic — with Harry heading up Magical Law Enforcement.
The story centers itself on the friendship between Harry's son Albus and Draco's son Scorpius, and the extraordinary trouble they get into when an illegal time-turner turns up in Harry's office at the ministry.
In the newly shortened version, which opened at the Curran in San Francisco last month, it's the formerly three-hour first part of the show, now truncated into about 90 minutes, that feels the most rushed. Very few elements of the plot have been excised in the new version — which was rewritten by playwright Jack Thorne and J.K. Rowling — and the whole exciting story remains mostly intact. Importantly for fans, most of the stage magic remains here as well, and it's hard to remember more than one or two effects in the original that have been cut.
But there is an unfortunate loss of exposition and character development in the first act that causes the hurried first 15 minutes of the show (which covers approximately what was covered in the first hour of the original) to feel like a dizzying rush of images that makes little sense. Albus and Scorpius still meet on the train to Hogwarts, and they both get sorted by the Sorting Hat into Slitherin — something that Albus dreaded. But for anyone who didn't already understand some context, the import of Albus's friendship with Scorpius could be easily lost. And we also get none of the context of Albus's miserable first semester at Hogwarts, failing his classes and living in his father's massive shadow, that builds to a fight he has with Harry — and that explain why makes a fateful decision to commit a major act of rebellion.
The greatest loss in the new version comes in the time spent at Hogwarts itself. A staple of the Potter film franchise was the humorous pleasure of watching the young wizards and witches in their classes learning spells and wand skills, and most all of this has been cut for time from Cursed Child. In fact, when Albus is suddenly back at home in his bedroom, apparently on a holiday or weekend break, it's entirely unexplained and seems especially confusing after he's only been away at school for a couple of minutes, in stage time.
But if you can forgive all this expediency, the story moves along at a breakneck pace without much further loss, and the show feels, essentially, the same as the original, with all its same highs and lows (and very little time to breathe or get bored). And most of what people are in the theater for is the magic anyway.
As I wrote in the December 2019 review, and it remains true, "It's a veritable showcase of modern stage trickery, lighting design, and a bunch of old-fashioned stagecraft that dates back well into the last century but still holds the power to awe and delight. For every stunning special effect that is only made possible through recent advances in projection mapping or pyrotechnics, there are a half dozen bits of magic and sleight of hand that have been in clever directors' playbooks for decades, but aren't typically deployed one after another, and all in one show."
The cast from the San Francisco production that opened over two years ago remains mostly intact, with Benjamin Papac as Albus, Jon Steiger as Scorpius, and John Skelley as Harry — the only major replacements are Lily Mojekwu, who takes over the role of Hermione, and Steve O'Connell who takes over the role of Ron. (And if you need a primer on who everyone is, this one still stands as relevant.)
One bit of criticism about the original version of the play seems to have been addressed by Rowling and Thorne in the new version, and Rowling has mentioned this publicly. After being accused of "queerbaiting" with the fairly obvious implication of romantic feelings between Albus and Scorpius in the earlier version, this version more clearly spells out the fact that they're in love — and Albus goes as far as to tell his dad in the final act that Scorpius "may always be the most important person" in his life. Still, though, it remains "family friendly" and there's no making out.
It was always going to be a challenge to compress the sweeping scope of the five-hour version into a more manageable three hours, but the creative team did so — and no one can say that there were essential, un-cut-able aspects to the original that have done irreparable damage to a great artwork. This was, and still is, primarily a piece of entertainment, and in that it still succeeds.
'Harry Potter and the Cursed Child' is playing indefinitely at The Curran. Curtain is at 7 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday, with 1 p.m. matinees on Saturday, and Sunday. Find tickets here.