If you saw my review of “Hamilton,” you know I found it one of the most remarkable shows in half a century of playgoing, an epochal musical that mattered to anyone who cared about the art form.
It’s now the second-coolest piece of theater I saw in October.
“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” five hours and 20 minutes of dazzlement that carries J.K. Rowling’s saga 19 years into the future, sells the costliest non-musical tickets in Broadway history: My wife and I paid $426 each (including taxes and fees) for the last two seats at the far right of the orchestra on a Sunday. You can pay more than $700 for the best seats, though of course you get a two-part show. (You take a two-and-a-half-hour break between parts.)
Is any theater ticket worth the equivalent of a lease payment on a new Lexus LS 500 or a month’s worth of food for a family of four? That question can’t be answered in the abstract. A Pottermaniac within striking distance of the Lyric Theatre will respond differently from somebody who loped through one or two of the books and didn’t watch the movies.
I can tell you this: You will never see anything like it, and you will never see it here. I’ll honor the e-mail from the producers asking me not to reveal stage secrets, but magical elements have been realized beautifully – so beautifully that a show of this complexity can never tour in this form. (It has also set up open-ended runs in London, Melbourne, San Francisco and Hamburg. In New York, tickets are currently listed through June 2019.)
What makes a play worth so much money, assuming anything does?
Script: Everything in drama starts with writing, and John Thorne’s Tony-winning script (taken from ideas developed with director John Tiffany and Rowling) carefully pays homage to the past while focusing on a younger generation.
Albus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy, children of ex-foes Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy, become best friends in Hogwarts’ Slytherin House and decide to right a wrong committed by the older generation: They’ll use a time-turner to save Cedric Diggory, who died in “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.” Naturally, they accidentally rewrite history and unleash powerful wickedness.
Like Rowling’s novels, the play deals with choices and responsibilities, the (often broken) bonds between generations, the need for sacrifice and selflessness in the eternal fight against evil, the warping effect of unwanted solitude. The story never lags or deviates in tone from its source.
Size: The Lyric seats about 1,900 (roughly equal to the Belk), and the farthest seat at the rear is just 90 feet from the stage. Sight lines stay clear to the outermost seats. Director Tiffany, who won one of the show’s six Tony Awards, uses the whole building in unexpected ways to create a physically imposing production. He flies characters upward, occasionally sends one into the audience and produces shocking effects around the venue. (But no more of that.)
Stagecraft: Even when you know something’s about to happen – say, the transformation of one character into another – and look for the way it’s done, you’re happily baffled. I saw only one wire in any flying sequence (because I was looking for it), and fires and mild explosions work smoothly. When an effect is accomplished obviously, such as moving staircases that whisk students around Hogwarts, you don’t notice the hustling stagehands. The show earned Tony Awards for lighting, sound, scenic design and costumes and deserved every one.
Special atmosphere: To avoid forged tickets, Ticketmaster won’t send them to your mobile device until three days beforehand. You’re told to report an hour early, partly because of the mad crush outside the building and partly so you can patronize two gift shops or a refreshment area designed to resemble a tea room. (If you’re not buying food or souvenirs or using the lavatory, get to the theater 15 minutes before curtain time; there won’t be a line outside, and you’ll breeze in.)
The Lyric has created an immersive experience: ushers with British accents, carpets and wallpaper with an “H” monogram, a room with painted patronuses on the walls. You’re asked not to look at the cast list, so you’ll be surprised when minor characters pop up. Serious fans such as the woman behind me will already have read the play, but even she gasped reverently as Albus Dumbledore stepped into his enchanted portrait. (C’mon, that’s not a spoiler.)
Audiences hear a lot about stage magic, but a great theatrical event benefits from offstage magic, too. “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” wants you to inhabit another universe from the moment you leave West 43rd Street. If any experience can justify prices that make you feel you’ve encountered the Whomping Willow, this one does.