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Monday, 13 May 2013 16:39

Everyone laughs at the return of ‘Stupefy! The 90 minute Harry Potter’

Written by Tina Farmer
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Everyone laughs at the return of ‘Stupefy! The 90 minute Harry Potter’
stlshakespeare.org

Let's be totally honest here. The words "family entertainment" most often inspire dread in the adult, and even teen-aged, members of the family. Thankfully, St. Louis Shakespeare's Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre has returned with their laugh-out-loud, pop culture stuffed riff on the Harry Potter series. This briskly paced adventure succeeds by staying true to the essential story while playing fast and loose with the surrounding details.

Good comedic acting shines in this production, and the ensemble cast is engaging, skillfully drawing in all of the audience with a variety of interactions. From the judicious use of lines directed to the audience to the joyful fist bumps and candy shared with the kids in the crowd, this is a show intent on participation.

Within all that interplay, however, the cast and crew faithfully present their story -- a lightening quick retelling of the Harry Potter series. Strong, focused direction ensures the story moves along effectively and efficiently, while a well-adapted script relates each of Harry's adventures accurately, if briefly.

One of the highlights of the performance for me was the way the lead actors and ensemble took to the challenge of simplifying and retelling a deeply layered story with many characters. It seemed clear that each of the cast members approached the production with a collaborative spirit, and a focus on finding the humor in the phenomena of Harry Potter. "Stupefy! The 90 minute Harry Potter" works specifically because the actors, and director, are fearless.

Michael Pierce, Betsy Bowman and Jaysen Cryer play Harry Potter, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley true to character, albeit with a bit more of a nod and a wink. Their ability to hold onto the central story is critical and they excel in their roles. The characters are sympathetic and likeable and, best of all they skip right past most of those annoying teen behaviors. Well, almost right past teen angst, we do get the creepy, yet stereotypical, clingy girlfriend (perhaps a nod to the "Ring" movies?) and a humorous jab at Roger Erb's delightfully emo Draco thrown in the direction of a certain vampire franchise.

Erb and the rest of the ensemble successfully played multiple roles with ease, creating distinct characters with unique quirks that referenced both pop culture and the specific Harry Potter character. From the wise yet befuddled Dumbledore to the doe-eyed Ginny, and the seductively awkward Bellatrix to the hidden hero in Neville, each of the actors had memorable moments that added depth and humor to the show. In addition to Erb, the talented ensemble includes Chris LaBanca, Robert Ashton, James Enstall, John Wolbers, Max Knocke, Andrew Kuhlman, Carl Overly, Jamie Pitt, Sarah Porter, Ben Ritchie and Tasha Zebrowski, as well as creature operators Morgan Hatfield and Jaiymz Hawkins.

The script adaptation is credited to Jaysen Cryer, who succeeds in serving up each of the Harry Potter movies in succinct, accurate bites, but the show clearly gets its energy and movement from the able direction of Suki Peters. Her comedic sensibilities, spot-on sense of timing, and deft touch are present from the moment the first actor hits the stage. The ensemble is tight, and handles the numerous costumes, wigs and props confidently, which, when coupled with the video effects, keeps the show from slowing for scene changes -- a requirement when you've put yourself on a 90-minute time limit.

The show feels truly collaborative at its core, from the actors to the directional choices to the considerable technical elements. Like a successful sketch comedy, it's a collaboration that works well, and, for the most part, the additions enhance the overall production. With the exception of the opening video, which felt long and disconnected from the Harry Potter story, the abundant use of props and technical effects quickly provided the necessary story exposition and added some welcome elements of surprise.

I was lucky enough to bring my niece and nephew along to the show, asking them to serve as my junior critics. My niece is 13 and a very active fan of all things Harry Potter related, while my nephew is a little younger and much more into gaming. He never once asked me for his handheld game and she, after warning me that she would catch every mistake, could only smile and state "that was amazing" as the show ended.

Best of all, our enjoyment of the show lasted well after we left the theater. We drove home that night retelling our favorite bits and trying to outdo each other when recalling all of the pop culture mentions we saw in the show.

To me, my niece's and nephew's enthusiastic participation and laugh-out-loud enjoyment of the show provides solid evidence that "Stupefy! The 90 minute Harry Potter" is accessible to audiences of all ages and entertaining enough to keep everyone's interest. If you're looking for a family night out filled with laughs for everyone, this show may have returned just in time.

The Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre presents the return engagement of "Stupefy! The 90 minute Harry Potter" at the Regional Arts Commission through May 18, 2013, with shows at 7:30 pm and 10:30 pm Fridays and Saturdays and at 7:30 pm on Thursday, May 16.

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