REVIEW: The Illusionists (The Civic)

The Avengers of Magic [by James Wenley]

The Illusionists
Luckily their costumes don’t look so ridiculous on the stage

Magic is back? Believe it. By mixing Vegas spectacle with the romanticism of the turn of the 20th Century magic show and packaging it with an ultra-modern sensibility and pizzazz, The Illusionists is a heart-thumping feast for the eyes and trip for the mind – of a type that many Aucklanders (myself included) have never experienced before.

That’s not to say the content itself is all new – many famous magic tropes are accounted for: doves appear from nowhere, a woman is cut in half, and a man escapes Houdini-like out of a tank of water. True to the form, it’s all about how you sell it. The Illusionists has all the bells and whistles:  dizzyingly high production values, fantasy-dressed backup dancers, and an energetic live band from LA that have toured with Kayne West.

The show starts small though, and with a sleight of hand, with the presence of The Trickster (Jeff Hobson), walking through the audience, asking “Hi, how are you?” with a false sincerity, and making bad balloon animals – a little wink perhaps to the kind of cloying, amateur hour impression of magic that many people might associate the form with. Of course, Hobson has a magical flourish up his sleeve to win this audience over, and the extravaganza begins.

The Illusionists comes to Auckland barely over a year old, having debuted at the Sydney Opera House in 2012. The all-star team of magicians that headline the show have individually been working for a lot longer. Their biographies themselves are rather astounding:  husband and wife team Mark Kalin and Jinger Leigh made a jumbo jet disappear – “the largest stage illusion of all time”, while Andrew Basso was the youngest person in history to win the title of “Escape Champion” at the World Convention of Escapology. Together, they are like the Avengers of Magic, each with their own collectable card superpower.

Hobson aka The Trickster (Specialty: Comedy Magic) is the de-facto MC, swanning around the stage and stalls and having a ball getting reactions out of the audience (among other things). His tricks (of the, “is this your card?” kind) are rarely remarkable on their own, but for Hobson his real trick is the humour he can generate around them. He gains an intimate rapport with the Auckand audience, and the show is always elevated by his entries.

Dan Sperry aka The Anti-Conjuror (Specialty: Shock Illusions) has a Goth Garb and a devil may care attitude. An early illusion, which became his claim to fame after performing it on America’s Got Talent 2010, grosses us out by seemingly rubbing dental floss into his throat to retrieve a mentos he had swallowed – beamed in close-up on the screens above and beside the stage for the many who wanted to turn away, but couldn’t take their eyes off. A second trick, conjuring a menagerie of doves shows a real knack for timing. His final, a classic involving Russian roulette with a broken glass bottle and a ‘volunteer’ from the audience, is preceded by a series of YouTube clips when the trick has gone horribly wrong with other magicians and ‘volunteers’. While knowing which bag contains the glass is a bit ho-hum, he gets quite a rise from the various (gentle) torments he puts the audience member through.

The double team of Mark Kalin aka The Gentleman (Specialty: Classic Magic Reimagined) and Jinger Leigh aka The Enchantress (Specialty: Skills of Grace and Gravity Defiance) together present some of the greatest hits of magic. Making a woman levitate might have floored the Victorians, but lacks a certain wow factor here (Leigh floats up and down, cross-legged, between two poles). However, cutting her in half still does the trick. There’s plenty of business involving making things appear and reappear as well.

Kevin James adopts the persona of eccentric The Inventor (Specialty: Magic inventions & Ground Breaking illusions), and is responsible for some of the biggest surprises of the night. One illusion, which sees a body split in half, and the upper torso wheeled right to the curtain of the stage, provides some furious head-scratching.

Andrew Basso’s The Escapologist (Specialty: Death Defying Escapes) has one major set-piece. Acknowledging inspiration from Houdini, “for the first time in History”, Basso must escape from a padlocked water tank. All while handcuffed, upside down, and in full view of the audience for the entire time.  It’s a heart-racing few minutes where we truly appreciate his skill.

The odd man out in the lineup is Phillip Escoffey as The Mentalist (Specialty: Mind Reading and the Paranormal). Described as one of Britain’s leading mind readers, his shtick is to make it seem like he is breaking the illusions of the form. When he gives a tarot card reading, he tells us that often readers will ask you to fill out forms, and he recommends not handing them on to after the reading. When he reads the cards for an audience member – and communicates with a spirit – he overplays getting things wrong. His later reversal falls flat – a combination of not sufficiently setting up a sealed envelope hanging on the side of stage, and an audience already wise and expecting a trick. His act in the second half, where with the help of three audience members he puts himself through tests done in the 1950s to weed out false psychics also has a similar bait and switch, but this time the showmanship is deftly done and the results are much more impressive with wonder-inducing results.

Cameras are trained on the magicians at all times, helping those further back to see the tricks in detail, but also leaving little room for the magicians to hide and strengthens the illusions. Audience members are also frequently used to check the equipment. Just how did they do that?

It’s saying a lot for a show full of magicians that the cheesiest part of the show was actually the live band Z, with their painful “Make some noise Auckland” hype-attempts and a terrible inspirational song about magic. Luckily, their musical role to complement the onstage acts with mood, energy and tension was spot on. Honorable cheese mentions also go to the dance routines, and gobo dominated lighting.

The Illusionists is an incredibly satisfying experience filled with awe and high theatrics. We lean forward in our seats. We shriek. We howl. We cry “WHAT?” But The Illusionists also wisely knows when the elaborate stage machinery isn’t needed. Kevin James, affecting more of a grandfatherly Dumbledore than the aloof Inventor, invites a child in the audience to join him in the aisles to help him make a paper flower float and dance. It’s a moment, along with James’ last curtain call gift to the audience, which for me contained the most pure magic of the show.  Astonishing.

The Illusionists is presented by Tim Lawson and Simon Painter and plays at The Civic until 2 June. Details see THE EDGE

SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Adey Ramsel

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