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Ongoing renovations to the interior of the CAA Ed Mirvish Theatre on Feb 7.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Harry Potter has a lot of tricks up his sleeve but can the boy wizard pull this off: transforming the massive CAA Ed Mirvish Theatre into an intimate theatre?

Right now, the stage is not where the magic is happening. For the Ed Mirvish Theatre, $5-million renovations are underway to ensure that audiences can handle the enchantment of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child when it finally comes to Toronto on May 31.

While the Ed Mirvish Theatre is closed to audiences through April, it has been cleared out, with seats in storage and carpet removed. The transformation is designed to create an immersive environment for an open-ended run of the Tony-winning Potter play. With new walls, seating and built-in fantasy, the venue will be reduced from a prepandemic seat count of around 2,200, which is bigger than any of the Broadway theatres in New York, to just 1,600.

“The audience is going to inhabit the Potter environment; it’s going to be a fully physical experience,” says Toronto-based architect and theatre consultant Athos Zaghi who is leading this latest rethink of the theatre.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which first opened in 2016 in London’s West End, has gone on to spawn productions in New York, San Francisco, Melbourne and Hamburg – and will come to Toronto and Tokyo in 2022.

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A worker installs wiring for led lighting along the edge of an aisle.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Penned by Jack Thorne, it is a stage-only sequel to J.K. Rowling’s bestselling series of books and focuses on a grown-up Potter and his son, Albus. Originally devised to take place over two performances (and still performed as such in London), it was rewritten to be consumed in a single sitting during the pandemic. That shortened version – which (re)opened to rave reviews in New York in December – will be performed in Toronto by an all-Canadian cast.

Zaghi, who also worked with Mirvish Productions on the restoration of the Royal Alexandra Theatre in 2016 and, at Lett/Smith Architects, during the construction of the Princess of Wales in 1993, says that while the on-stage set of the Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (created by long-in-demand Montreal-raised designer Christine Jones) is the same wherever you see it, the physical environment that envelopes the audience is not.

“They want every venue to have a different experience,” Zaghi explained, on a recent hard-hat tour of the renovations, which began in November and are set to be completed in April.

Currently, the parabolic rake of the floor below the orchestra seats, designed to make sure all audience members have the same focal point on the stage, is exposed. Lines carved into the concrete show where seats will eventually be reinstalled – as well as where a new centre aisle will be positioned. (A pathway through the audience is required for the staging as envisaged by English director John Tiffany and his frequent choreographic collaborator Steven Hoggett.) About three metres are being sealed off on each side of this level by new walls that are, in a way, an extension of the show’s set and will be installed next month. These will also hide the private boxes that currently sandwich the stage

This narrowing of the auditorium is in part to make sure sightlines are optimal for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. “There are certain things within the show they want the entire audience to see,” says Zaghi, “It’s packed with illusions – and part of them means that you have very, very specific staging that has to be spot on.”

Much of the seating being lost in the renovation comes from the theatre’s single, deep balcony – which will also be shortened, eliminating a number of rows as well as the “standing room” stools at the very back.

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The seating and space will be reduced in preparation for the May 2022 opening of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The Ed Mirvish Theatre – the venue’s name only since 2011 – first opened as a combination vaudeville palace/cinema called the Pantages in 1920. It has been through numerous owners, names and configurations in the century since, because it was built for a very particular era that, ultimately, was quite short-lived: the time before “talkies” when live vaudeville acts and silent-film screenings dominated entertainment and coexisted in the same venues.

Designed by architect Thomas W. Lamb for the entertainment mogul and founder of Famous Players, Nathan Nathanson, it got its first name from original operator Alexander Pantages, of the once pervasive vaudeville and movie circuit.

When it opened with more than 3,600 seats, the Pantages was second in size only to New York’s Capitol Theatre among vaudeville palaces, according to Constance Olsheski’s 1989 book about the theatre; it was the costliest in Toronto with a budget somewhere between $600,000 and $1-million.

But when sound came to the movies later that decade, the vaudeville era quickly went down. Renamed the Imperial Theatre in 1930, it became simply a cinema in time, and in the 1970s, was carved up into a six-room multiplex. Eventually, the building would fall into the hands of upstart Toronto producer Garth Drabinsky, however – and history would be reversed.

In 1989, his Livent company reopened the painstakingly restored space for live performance with around 2,200 seats; it was once again known as the Pantages – and, once again, would only keep the name for a decade. After Drabinsky was convicted of fraud and forgery related to the operations of Livent, the theatre was sold from that bankrupt company to Clear Channel Entertainment in 1999. Ownership passed through a couple of other companies until Mirvish Productions purchased it in 2008.

While the Toronto production of the Harry Potter play involves, viewed from one angle, building a theatre within a theatre, it does allow some of the features of the Drabinsky-initiated restoration of Lamb’s original vision of the vaudeville palace to shine in a new way.

The walls and ceiling in the theatre, formerly a butterscotch cream, are in the process of being repainted a colour called “witchcraft” – described by Pittsburgh Paints as “a dark, cool, stormy black with a navy undertone.”

Though chosen to fit in with the Harry Potter motif, Zaghi notes that the colour has made details and decorations on columns and trims pop in a way they did not previously. “The dome used to read like a flat pancake,” he says, pointing to the spot from which the chandelier in The Phantom of the Opera used to fall.

That thrilling moment conceived for director Hal Prince’s production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical was immersive theatre before that term was coined. So as much as the current Ed Mirvish Theatre renovation will take the ever-evolving building in a brand new direction, there is continuity too in this space haunted by fascinating history.

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Seating in the rear section of the mezzanine will be closed off with a solid wall.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

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