July 15th, 2012. It was our first trip to New York City: myself, my mother, my teenage daughter and our Spanish exchange student. I hadn’t planned on seeing Potted Potter when I trekked up to the TKTS booth in Times Square to try to score some same-day Broadway tickets. But when it became clear we were not going to be able to see Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory playing Jimmy Stewart in Harvey, the Potted Potter show caught my eye. After a quick cell phone call to make sure the Spanish student was familiar enough with the series to appreciate it (she was, having seen all the movies), I bought tickets for the 5 PM show that night, in the Little Shubert Theater.
The premise of the show is that all seven Potter books are encapsulated into 70 minutes. I had a brief twinge of guilt at the word “unauthorized” nature, wondering how two guys, however funny, were managing to make money off J. K. Rowling’s creation without paying her for it. But, I had also seen some rave reviews and even read the rumor that they had inadvertently turned away Rowling herself from one of their sold out 2006 shows. I figured Ms. Rowling could look after her own interests and, if there was any infringement, she’d already had plenty of time to sue, so I decided to just enjoy it.
And enjoy it I did. The two-man (Jeff Turner as Harry, Dan Clarkson and a bunch of puppets and stuffed animals as everyone else) team delivered a hilarious series of fast-paced sketches reminiscent of the better Saturday Night Live and Monty Python routines, sprinkled liberally with touches of John Moschitta’s Ten Classics in Ten Minutes and Sesame Street’s Monsterpiece Theater. As might be expected, the show was packed with elementary-to high school-aged students, but the parents and other adults were enjoying it right along with them, just as with the Potter books themselves. My own group included my 70ish mother (who has never read the books but watched at least some of the movies along with her grandchildren), the Spanish student (who knew only the movies), my daughter (a typical American Potter fan, who eagerly devoured both books and movies). As for me, I’m a Hogwarts Professor who had recently submitted a paper for the Replacing Wands with Quills conference proceedings, so I’m probably as big a Potter geek as Dan and Jeff profess to be.
Our level of Potter familiarity didn’t matter. There was enough pure slapstick to entertain people who had never heard of Harry Potter, enough fast-paced Potter-themed jokes to have the children screaming with delight and enough sophistication in the verbal humor and inside jokes to keep the older fans eagerly anticipating the actors’ next line. By ten minutes in, I was wishing the show was billed as “All seven Harry Potter books in three hours” because I think I could have enjoyed it at least that long. This show may have begun as street entertainment for patrons waiting in lines for book and movie premieres, but it has evolved into a brilliant piece of comedy in its own right.
Jeff attempts to approach his role with a Dumbledore-, Hermione- or perhaps even Percy-type seriousness, while Dan has the mischievous energy of both Weasley twins, the enthusiasm of Colin Creevy and at times the good judgment of Gilderoy Lockhart. Jeff is lucky to finish the show with his arm bones intact, particularly since it includes a live Quidditch game* with Seekers chosen from the audience. But the duo does far more than simply make fun of the Harry Potter series. This is parody, but it is parody by a team whose regard and respect for Rowling’s series cannot be doubted. Yes, they poke fun at a few decisions of both Rowling and the movie makers. Jeff’s exasperated “No more Quidditch!” is not misplaced; when you think about it, it really isn’t much of a game if you are not the Seeker. Dan is forced to admit multiple times that their substandard props and set are the result of him blowing their budget on the “giant, state-of-the-art animatronic dragon for Book 4!”
But, the very creation of this show demonstrates that the pair views Harry Potter as more than a popular movie franchise, or even a best-selling book series. Jeff’a biggest (and funniest) frustration with Dan is not his foolish dragon puppet expenditures but the fact that Dan, as it turns out, is frantically skimming the books between scenes, having signed on to the show without having actually having finished reading them. Like a lot of the “Harry-Haters,” Dan doesn’t let this omission stop him from enlightening the rest of us as to what the series is all about. But here is the twist: when Dan starts mixing up Harry Potter with the great works of C.S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, we know that Dan and Jeff, like our own Headmaster, categorize Rowling as a modern-day Inkling. Harry Potter is truly a cultural touchstone and I think Dan and Jeff would agree that it will be with us for awhile. So will their show; it closes in New York on Sept 2nd but both US and international tours will follow.
Obviously, I encourage Potter fans to catch this show if they can. I really can’t share much more without spoiling it, except to say that some of the lines I laughed hardest at were among the simplest: “Come, Nagini!” and “Neville killed my bloody snake!” included. And, just as I was wondering how the duo would possibly bring the zaniness to an end… well, let’s just say that a disco ball and one of my favorite songs from 7th grade were involved. Final tip: If you want a chance at playing Quidditch, sit in the front.
*Hard to say for sure, given I only saw the show once, but my impression was that the Quidditch game got a little rougher than usual in this particular performance and seemed to have inspired more than one improvised line subsequent to the match. It was great to see Dan and Jeff’s on-the-cuff comedic skills shine through, but if I go again I’ll volunteer as Madame Hooch.