My critical colleague, Liz Ramsay, has written a heart-felt and even stirring tribute to the Harry Potter series on her blog. As I often am, I’m envious of both the time and talent it took to write such a fine appreciation, since my time has been crunched as of late (even more than usual) and my talent, well, the very existence of that is debatable.
I’m quite a few years older than Ms. Ramsay so my attachment to the HP series comes from a different place: from being reluctantly drawn into a world my children were exploring and having it become just as all-encompassing for me as it was for them. After slowly being introduced to the story reading the first three books to my daughters, I read each successive book in a weekend, even bringing the 4th book with me as I walked the dog around the neighborhood. When the first movie came out, I was the one who bought the tickets online well before the premiere date and left work early to join my children at the theater. When HP7.2 premiered last weekend, I was at a midnight showing, semi-dragged along by my 10-year old.
I love the books, even though my critical instincts were tweaked by some of the clunky prose and the occasional clumsy plot-saving device (e.g., Ron and Harry saved from the spiders by the enchanted car, the whole time-turner thing, etc.) But the series as a whole is plotted with tremendous skill and there are aspects of the 7th book that I think are pure genius, including one of the most satisfying endings I’ve ever read, all the more impressive given the immense pressure on Rowling to deliver something big (compare it to similar high-pressure series endings like “Seinfeld” or “Lost”).
In general, I’ve appreciated but not loved the movies (3 and 4 have been my faves). Most of them have had significant moments of gawking at the special effects or, in the last one, wasted time spent looking over artsy landscapes. The diminishing number of allowances made to those who aren’t intimately familiar with the story has made these last ones confusing for me, even though I’ve read the source material. And the complete bungling of the Harry and Ginny Weasley relationship is a crime (based on the movies, I’d have wanted Harry to end up with just about any other girl in the cast besides Ginny). Still, each movie has had at least one set-piece that was done spectacularly well. In this last movie, I thought the scene with Dumbledore and Harry in the celestial King’s Cross Station was about as good as I could have imagined it.
This is a lot of rambling about books on a blog that’s supposed to be about theater. I could say that Daniel Radcliffe is a Broadway star now so there’s some relevance. But actually the reason I go on is because, as I mentioned below, I saw the last HP movie only an hour or so after the curtain went down on the performance of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” I attended. And I consider them both blockbusters, each with the attendant pros and cons that come with such an enterprise.
There’s no denying the comic tsunami that is Scott Wichmann and the most guffaw-inducing scenes of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” involve his character’s ruses. Add Freddy Benson to the impressive list of characters that Scotty has taken to previously unimaginable comic heights. It would be easy to minimize the contribution of Broadway vet Jeff McCarthy in the face of Wichmann’s prodigious skills but that would be a mistake. McCarthy has a difficult and narrow path to travel. He has to be suave, worldly, confident but also a bit worn and you have to believe that after all of his years, that he actually falls for one of his marks. That I never questioned any of those aspects of his character is a tribute to the skill of the actor.
But unexpectedly, I came away from DRS newly impressed with Rachel Abrams, whose straight-forward but nuanced portrayal of Christine was a marked contrast to her last delightful appearance opposite Wichmann as Adelaide in “Guys and Dolls.” I expected to love the scoundrels, but in the end, the sneaky subtlety of Abrams’ performance was what really wooed me. Speaking of which, I also ended up enjoying the stumbling romance of Andre (Joe Pabst) and Muriel (Robin Arthur) more than I would have thought. Between not-too-heavy-handed writing and fresh performances from the actors, this potentially schmaltzy sidelight actually bolstered the trajectory of the main plotline rather than detract from it.
In one last note on an actor, Nicole Oberleitner certainly makes the most out of supporting role that I imagine is the kind actors love where you get to hit the stage for a brief time, chew up all the scenery in sight, and then move on.
It would take another several hundred words to fawn over the technical elements of the show, specifically Brian Barker’s spectacular set and Sue Griffin’s dapper costumes. Let’s just say that comparing this set and costumes to others in town isn’t quite on the level of comparing apples to oranges but it’s close.
Of course, I do have a quibble list and first on it is the sound. I heard most of what I wanted to from those on stage but I heard from several other audience members who didn’t (and that also seems to have been one of Mr. Miller’s at GayRVA’s chief complaints). Every modern musical struggles with the infamous “catchy” conundrum – creating songs that fit in context but also somehow stand-alone enough to be memorable. There were some good songs here – “Great Big Stuff” and “Dirty Rotten Number” specifically – but they suffered a bit from being more percussive and punchy versus melodic and catchy. This does present the opportunity to praise Sandy Dacus’s musical direction though: the big, brassy numbers in particular were sparkling and stirring and a delight to listen to.
My final quibble is more esoteric and, on some levels, perhaps not even appropriate given the subject. It also brings me back to Harry Potter. One of the things Rowling did with the HP books was reinforce some pretty steadfast and even stodgy values – the importance of loyalty and friendship, the fact that our choices define us, etc. – in a way that was actually uplifting instead of pedantic. The movies, even with their whiz-bang effects and some fabulous acting by some of the best Brits around, never really communicated those fundamentals in a convincing way. And perhaps it’s impossible for a big budget summer entertainment to do so.
Similarly, as fabulous as all of the aspects of DRS were (and shoot, I didn’t even mention all of the amazing dance numbers…), I didn’t leave with a sense that it all added up to much. I was entertained – thoroughly so – and I congratulate director Chase Kniffen for engineering such a bedazzling evening. I would even consider going back to get that thoroughly entertained again. But when the show ended, I wasn’t enlightened or emboldened in any way. Perhaps it’s too much to expect to be. But that doesn’t stop me from wanting it.