NealsPaper

All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Potted Potter — Prince Music Theater

With all of J.K. Rowling’s inventive lore, distinctive characters, descriptive costumes, myopic muggles, and wizardly traditions, there is oodles to spoof and celebrate in the Harry Potter books. Everything from quidditch to Dumbledore’s beard, the magical folks’ pet owls, Hagrid’s hairiness, and Dobby’s Tolkien-like features are recognizable and ripe for parody. 

     “Potted Potter” promises to cover the whole Potter canon, all seven books, in 70  minutes, One actor wearing a black V-neck football (soccer) jersey bearing the white number “1” tells another  wearing a similar outfit with the white number “2” that he will play Harry Potter while the other, number 2,” plays more than 300 other characters.  The actors have referee whistles and other tools to keeps things hopping, so once introductions are done, it’s off to the races. 

      And that’s the problem. “Potted Potter” gives you an idea of what happens in each book, but the rundown, which has to be necessarily fast because of the stated time frame, has no texture and none of the magic or creativity with which Rowling endows her popular books. 

       Plot is everything in the Harry Potter series, Rowling’s is a decent writer, but her gift is in imagining a colorful world that is between a Dickensian Victorian Christmas, with everyone in long coats and gowns, and a modern dream on which objects move on their own, pictures come to life, and nothing has to be exactly what you see. 

       Any play that claims to be derived from Harry Potter should have a sense of wonder. 

       “Potted Potter” doesn’t. 

       Of course, the title tells you it is meant to be a romp, that it’s aim to be funny while dealing with all things Potter. You expect liberties to be taken, fun to be made, and comedy at Rowling’s or Harry’s expense.  Exaggeration and humor are part of the package. 

       So be it. But “Potted Potter” is too loose in its construction, too free in its format, too fast in its storytelling. It’s like a variety show with congenial hosts who are more like Stanley Tucci’s portrayal of Caesar Flickerman in “The Hunger Games” than anything in the Potter books.  Nowhere does anything stop down enough to allow someone to savor the essence of Rowling’s work. No time is taken to be careful, to be dramatic, to be magical, or even to be funny in a way that allows a joke to play and register. 

      “Potted Potter” just bounces along. It is energetic. Its actors, particularly Delme Thomas, are attractive and likeable. But the show gives no taste of Potter. I kept feeling I was at an arcade where people were going to pop out from corners as Harry Potter characters than at a show that had a script and a purpose. Everything is so disjointed, so disorderly, it’s impossible to stay engaged with what happens on stage.  

      I am lucky. I know my Potter. I would bet more than three-quarters of the Prince audience knew the stories and what happens. If they or I did not, we would be lost. No attempt is made to lure you into the tales or make them interesting. Yes, the mention of Severus Snape or the various dormitories of Hogwarts gets a rise and reaction from the crowd. But for the poor soul who is unfamiliar with Hogwarts, or the train from King’s Cross Station that takes you there, “Potted Potter” would be a waste. You can’t catch up with decades of ignoring Harry and his escapades from this show. 

       Let that be a lesson to anyone who thought of attending to improve their pop culture literacy. Better to go to Cliff’s Notes or a Wikipedia page of synopses. “Potted Potter” will not help. 

       Because the show is so physical and Thomas (number 2) and James Percy (number 1, his partner in crime) are always moving or talking, the part of the show that yields the most entertainment and has the most effect is a quidditch game played by the audience, one half representing Gryffindor, one half Slytherin, using a beach ball as the quaffle (or is it the golden snitch?), each side directed by Thomas to try to get the ball through goals planted high in the front side walls of the theater, on the audience side of the proscenium. For extra measure, two children are asked to volunteer from the audience. They will compete if no one gets the quaffle in the goal. 

     Thomas is the ringleader of the quidditch match, and he keeps it lively. The audience is quite competitive. I know I was always poised to spike the ball to someone more strategically placed than I to drive the ball into the goal. I actually plotted the angle I’d try to send the ball to get it in optimum position for a score. (I have a tendency to get into games and play to win.) 

      The match took probably ten of the 70 minutes, but they were the most fun because they were the most centered and demanded the most attention. The interactivity and the playing of a game were a relief, but the best part was “Potted Potter” had a direction, an objective it didn’t have previously. 

      The quidditch sequence also gave Thomas a chance to shine because the children on the stage, a boy, about 6, and a girl, about 8, were the least competitive children I’ve ever seen. Neither wanted to tackle Percy when he had the ball, and they were told that getting the ball from him or knocking him down was the way to win. Of course, the actor would have done a fake fall the minute one of the moppets touched him. He is not going to risk hurting them or himself. But the kids did not move. Finally the boy made an effort to tag Percy, and Gryffindor prevailed. One of my nieces or nephews would have had the job sewn up before Thomas finally motivated the victorious kid to at least try to win. You wonder about the future of sport when you can’t get kids to play an organized game with someone giving clear directions. 

      “Organized” is the key word in the last sentence. “Potted Potter” took form during the game. Both Thomas and Percy had and took distinct roles. The audience knew where to look and acted in concert. Well, except for the two unmotivated children on stage. 

      This focusing of attention was a novelty to the production. Everything is slapdash, words being tossed off to be caught on the fly, skits and business being enacted without creating the intensity needed to get people to watch and attend. 

      In the end, relatively few of the 300 characters in the Harry Potter books are mentioned. Yes, you don’t want to jumble things by  giving every figure his play, but Dumbledore bearly gets noticed until the seventh book when he famously sacrifices himself to save Harry. 

      Also, few details of the book come to light. To my mind it would have better if Thomas and Percy (Del and Jim) could have stopped the circus for two minutes out of each 10 and concentrated on engaging in the audience in one of Harry’s dilemmas. 

      They did not. With zest and vim, they kept on like barkers at the county fair, directing attention but never commanding it. 

       Daniel Clarkson and Jefferson Turner, who created “Potted Potter” have made a franchise of the show and have appeared in others in a “Potted” series. Currently in London, Clarkson and  Turner are doing a show called “Potted Panto” at the West End’s Vaudeville Theatre.  This rough-and-tumble kind of show is more popular among the British than it is here.  

      By listening, I could tell there is a keen joke or two in the “Potted Potter” patter. The humor, and the tribute, do not register, because speed, personality, and verve are placed above clarity and involvement in storytelling. The show gives a taste of Potter, but it’s a small taste without spice or flavor. Better can be done with Rowling’s wealth of material. 

         Percy and Thomas are two of three performers who alternate roles at the Prince Music Theater. The other cast member is Gary Trainor. The director is Richard Hurst, who should buzz into Philadelphia to tighten and center the show before it proceeds on its tour. 

         “Potted Potter” runs through Sunday, January 5 at the Prince Music Theater, 1412 Chestnut Street, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 2 and 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday,  and 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. No shows are scheduled for Christmas Eve, Christmas, or New Year’s Day. No evening show is set for New Year’s Eve. Tickets range from $85 to $35 and can be ordered by calling 215-972-1000 or going online to www.princemusictheater.org.  Ask about packages that are available for groups. 

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