Magic is, for the most part, a matter of misdirection, but although there are a few baffling decisions in terms of the prominence given to some of the seven performers in this showcase, The Illusionists is not, itself, misdirected. Gaudy, perhaps, but strobe lights, smoke, and mirrors are nothing new to magic and, in fact, a few tricks–such as the train that appears during the opening montage–are probably a bit underwhelming for those used to Broadway spectacles. Ultimately, the show knows to leave well enough alone, trusting the charismagic cast to be slight only of hand.
That said, assembling seven disparate personalities and acts is dangerous, and they don’t all stack up favorably. Andrew Basso, for instance, performs only once, before intermission, because the water torture chamber escape that Houdini was known for is an almost impossible act to follow. On the other hand, Aaron Crow has a single marginalized performance–a modernized William Tell act–because his silent pantomime and physical precision can’t compete with everything around him. Jeff Hobson’s dry wit is far more impressive than his watch-lifting and card-finding, but that’s only when you compare him to the Manipulator, Yu Ho-Jin, who appears not only to be conjuring cards out of thin air, but to be reconfiguring the images on those cards as he fans them out on a table. (Cameras are used well to ensure that close-up magic plays well to the back of the house, and as two of my friends and a variety of enthusiastic six and seven-year-olds wound up on stage, I can confirm that they’re probably not using plants.)
That said, a great deal of The Illusionists comes across as broad and gimmicky, which may be a result of snapping between so many different acts, with no real sense of consistency, personality, or a build. I’ll sadly remember Adam Trent, the glib Futurist, more for the way he uses projectors and cameras (with pre-recorded and well-timed bits) than for any of his actual talent. Likewise, I’ve nothing but respect for all the tricks that Kevin James has designed–but it’s disappointing to feel, as a result, like you’ve seen his act before. It’s all still impressive, but you don’t get the sense that either one could carry a show through force of will, not like Penn & Teller, David Blaine, or Criss Angel.
On the other hand, Dan Sperry could’ve stayed on stage the whole night. Made up to look like a cross between a Goth and the Joker, his acts revolve around masochism and misanthropy, whether that’s a matter of pulling string out of his eye or objects “through” his throat, or playing a friendly game of Russian Roulette with a very handsy, very drunk audience member. (It’s possible his trick was ruined by this participant, since it ended so anti-climactically, but it was more than salvaged by his performance.) And though he bills himself an Anti-Conjuror, his dazzling dove act, in which he turns no birds into two birds into giant birds, the colors of their feathers changing with the sweep of a curtain, is the only trick that comes close to the eye-boggling “How did he do that?” provoked by Ho-Jin’s finale.
It’s a bit of a missed opportunity that The Illusionists doesn’t follow more closely in the footsteps of the movie Now You See Me that it’s so clearly modeled after–there aren’t any combination acts. But then again, the magic performed on stage is about as “real” as magic gets, and whether you’re the young girl watching a paper mache rose hover in the air before catching fire and turning into a real flower or the married couple trying not to flinch as an arrow slams through the apple just above your head, there’s something for everyone. Even if you figure out a few tricks–and there were a couple of body doubles and missed misdirects that seemed obvious–the evening still works to remind us of all the wonder that’s out there.
The Illusionists runs at the Marquis Theater through January 4th.