'The Illusionists — Live on Broadway': Theater Review

Courtesy of Vanessa Viana
Yu Ho-Jin in 'The Illusionists'
This popular family-geared entertainment will make plenty of theatergoers' money disappear.
1/3/2016

The Vegas-style touring revue featuring an assemblage of seven flamboyant magicians is back for another New York holiday engagement.

Considering their show was a massive surprise hit last holiday season (grossing north of $8 million in just six weeks), it isn't unexpected to see The Illusionists back on Broadway to conjure more box-office magic. Featuring four holdovers from the 2014 engagement, augmented by three newcomers imported from England and Australia, The Illusionists — Live on Broadway is an enjoyably hokey, Las Vegas-style variety evening of magic whose mostly pretend thrills should provide a welcome two-hour escape from reality.

After a deafening video introduction of the performers for those audience members presumably too lazy to read the Playbill bios, the evening begins with James More, "The Deceptionist" (all the magicians have catchy nicknames suitable for comic-book characters), performing a nifty trick in which he lies prone atop a narrow pole before being spun around like a helicopter blade.

As with last year's incarnation, the evening is anchored by the hilarious Jeff Hobson, "The Trickster," whose camp demeanor is combined with a quick-wittedness that makes his frequent interactions with audience members priceless. His simple routine involving an egg disappearing and reappearing in a paper bag becomes a high point thanks to his ability to wring endless comic material from his hapless foil. (Be warned: If you're allergic to audience participation, avoid sitting down front in the orchestra section.)  

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In addition to The Deceptionist, who also delivers modern variations on Houdini's classic "Metamorphosis" illusion as well as the old sawing-a-body-in-half trick, the newcomers include Raymond Crowe, "The Unusualist," whose eclectic repertoire includes throwing his voice in a comic routine involving, yes, volunteers, and performing a surprisingly sweet shadow-puppet segment to Louis Armstrong's recording of "What a Wonderful World." There's also Jonathan Goodwin, aptly named "The Daredevil" for such stunts as escaping from a straitjacket after being hung upside-down and lit on fire.

The returning acts include Dan Sperry, "The Anti-Conjuror," well known for a 2010 appearance on America's Got Talent that has garnered millions of YouTube views. Resembling a less-threatening Marilyn Manson, the goth-garbed but disarmingly funny Sperry specializes in gruesome illusions. Here he swallows razor blades and string, only to regurgitate them fully threaded, and, to the horror of a poor woman from the audience who had no idea what she was in for, inserted a quarter into his eye socket only to remove it from a gash in his arm.

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Then there's Adam Trent, "The Futurist," who does a lengthy bit involving an audience member's cellphone, which he pretends to pulverize and put into a blender (Penn & Teller did the same routine in their recent Broadway engagement). He also performs an elaborately choreographed dance number in which he speedily interacts with video versions of himself, like a modern-day Gene Kelly.

The show's best performer remains Yu Ho-Jin, "The Manipulator," who delivers sleight-of-hand card tricks so gracefully and elegantly that they are practically poetic. Although he remains silent, he nonetheless manages to include a touching tribute to the people of Paris.

Scored to deafening rock music performed by a band dubbed "Z" and featuring sexy back-up dancers and plenty of dry ice for ambience, The Illusionists is inevitably more than a little cheesy. But it hardly seemed to matter to the enthusiastic crowd, especially the children whose rabid eagerness to be called onstage is probably a good indication of robust concession-stand sales for "The Ultimate Magic Kit."

Cast: Raymond Crowe, Jonathan Goodwin, Jeff Hobson, Yu Ho-Jin, James More, Dan Sperry, Adam Trent
Director-creative producer: Neil Dorward
Lighting designer: Jared A. Sayeg
Costume designer: Angela Aaron
Video designer: NICE Studios
Illusion designer: Don Wayne
Illusion director: Mark Kalin
Presented by Simon Painter, Tim Lawson, MagicSpace Entertainment, Road Show Theatrical

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