"Potted Potter" comes on at first like a community-theater lampoon of the Harry Potter saga. Owl guano, a Muppet Dobby, literal slapstick, death by Silly String, Quidditch played by the audience with a beach ball, a ballyhooed dragon special effect that goes entirely flat.
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"Potted Potter""Potted Potter"
★ ★ ½
Locations: Broadway Playhouse, 175 E. Chestnut St., Chicago, (800) 775-2000, broadwayinchicago.com, through Dec. 23. Moves to the Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph Drive, Dec. 26 through Jan. 6.
Showtimes: For Broadway Playhouse: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. matinees Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday; additional 5 p.m. performance Nov. 25; through Dec. 23. Showtimes vary at the Harris Theater: see broadwayinchicago.com for schedule.
Parking: Pay garages and limited street parking.
Rating: All audiences.
Yet the two-man British comedy team of Jeff Turner and Daniel Clarkson simply will not be denied. They work relentlessly from even before the opening curtain to cram J.K. Rowling's seven Potter novels into 70 minutes, and allowed an introduction of five minutes or so -- and an all-encompassing final musical number based on "I Will Survive" -- they pull it off.
Their corollary to Chekhov's law: When you place a disco ball in the theater, you have to use it.
It's a Jeff and Mutt pairing, with Turner playing the diminutive straight man to Clarkson's mugging every-other-character-but-Harry. Clarkson has a Jason Segel quality about him and a manic energy, whether donning an orange wig to play Ron Weasley or dragging a stuffed-toy python behind him as Voldemort. ("Come, Nagini!")
Turner even endears himself to skeptics by pointing out that Potter himself is "just so boring," adding, "He just bumbles his way through the books."
Of course, this is played for a twist, as Turner, who's been playing Harry throughout, gets to switch to the role of Dumbledore -- just in time for his death.
What makes Harry great in the actual books and movies, however, is his ability to improvise, just when his bumbling threatens to go awry, and the same goes for "Potted Potter." Turner and Clarkson go awry as well, but they show a skill for ad-libbing and, even more important, for delighting in each other's foibles.
Some of these seemingly ad-libbed surprises may be scripted, as when Turner, playing Quidditch's Golden Snitch, gets tackled by a player pulled from the audience and moans, "I think I just learned the difference between football and soccer."
Yet other lines seem natural, and will no doubt be added to the show (if they haven't been already). Turner, for instance, disses Dumbledore as a teacher, which elicits a few boos from the audience. "Seems like teaching's kind of popular in Chicago," Clarkson says.
This offhand comedy makes "Potted Potter" work much more than the pre-thought-out material does. Turner and Clarkson somehow hook into the comic rhythm of the old "Carol Burnett Show," in comic actors trying to out-mug each other and laughing at one another when they fail.
That, ultimately, is what carries "Potted Potter." It's a joyous, endearing and, at the same time, thoughtful and respectful lark.
After all, it's an inevitable next step for kids weaned on the Potter books and movies. As children grow up, they love to show off their sophistication by making fun of the very things they found profound as kids. It's the dynamic Mad Magazine and Wacky Packages have been based on, and it works every bit as well here.
Turner's Potter creates a Patronus charm on an animation screen, and Clarkson as Voldemort responds: "You made Bambi appear. Big deal."
So "Potted Potter" serves a purpose, as well as being entertainment. And entertaining it is, in the end. May your performance be as delightfully error-prone as the press preview was, whether the ad-libs are prepared ahead of time or not.