'The Illusionists — Magic of the Holidays': Theater Review

Enjoyable if hokey hocus-pocus.
12/30/2018

The popular touring bill of magicians performing in various styles returns for its fourth annual Broadway engagement, with a lineup that includes 'America's Got Talent' champion Shin Lim.

See enough magic shows and you'll soon realize that there's nothing new under the sun. Modern-day illusionists are basically performing the same tricks that have been a staple of the entertainment form for decades, only with new technological bells and whistles. What distinguishes the performers, aside from their skill, is the entertainment level they bring to their routines. On that front, The Illusionists — Magic of the Holidays more than delivers, even if its cheesiness factor is more redolent of Las Vegas than Broadway.

Not that it has stopped the touring production from becoming a holiday mainstay on the Great White Way. This is the fourth annual edition of the show designed to cash in on the influx of tourists during the season, and it is bound to enjoy the same success as its predecessors in fulfilling the apparently insatiable demand for family-friendly Broadway entertainment.

The show features five magicians, all given snappy monikers that don't necessarily prove accurate when it comes to their routines: Colin Cloud ("The Deductionist"), Chloe Crawford ("The Sorceress"), Shin Lim ("The Manipulator"), Darcy Oake ("The Grand Illusionist") and Adam Trent ("The Futurist"). The last serves as the de facto host of the evening, which also features "Special Guest" Light Balance, a hip-hop dance troupe from Ukraine incorporating neon and LED lights. Many of the performers gained wide exposure through such television shows as America's Got Talent and Britain's Got Talent, the closest modern-day equivalent to vaudeville.  

Trent proves a smoothly ingratiating emcee, exhibiting a boyish appeal and enthusiasm that easily wins over the crowd. He's as much dancer as magician, performing elaborate performance art-style routines involving complex video projections. He incorporates a variety of magic styles into his act; some of them don't pay off, such as a lengthy bit in which he runs through the auditorium catching rolled-up pieces of paper thrown by audience members that later prove prophetic. But his technical skill is manifestly evident and his monologue about how he began performing magic as a child, accompanied by old home movies, gives the evening a nice emotional component.

As you may have guessed from his nickname, Cloud practices mentalism, which inevitably involves loads of audience participation (you sit near the stage at your own risk). Mentalists generally traffic in the same sort of familiar routines in which they amazingly intuit personal information about audience members or identify words randomly selected from a book. The Scotland-born Cloud performs these and other bits expertly, but what makes them truly entertaining is his sharp wit and easy rapport with his volunteers. He's hilarious when things are going well and even funnier when his foils prove to be less than the brightest of bulbs, as was the case several times on opening night.

Shin Lim, who pocketed a cool $1 million as an America's Got Talent champion, performs sleight-of-hand card tricks. While close-up magic inevitably loses something in a large auditorium (even if you're sitting down front, you inevitably wind up looking at the video screens), the young magician is such a master of his craft that it doesn't matter. His fluid movements are beautifully choreographed and executed, achieving a near poeticism enhanced by his slyly confident manner.

Oake delivers some of the evening's most lavish illusions, including several in which he miraculously appears and disappears. His muscled, tattooed physique and shaved head make him appear far more threatening than he actually is. Plenty of magicians perform a bit in which they make doves appear out of thin air, for instance, but not many seem fond enough of the birds to kiss them.

Crawford only appears in one segment, in which she recruits a male audience member for a "dinner date" involving her ingesting razor blades and them producing them on a string she pulls out of her mouth. It's an old trick (Houdini performed it with needles a century ago), but it always works. Crawford nails it expertly, but it's a shame the only female performer on the bill is given so little to do.

Light Balance, who wowed Tyra Banks with their appearance on, you guessed it, America's Got Talent, provide a nice palate cleanser with their tricked-up dance routines set to Bruno Mars and Jason Derulo songs. The effect is enjoyably dazzling, but would certainly prove repetitive with more stage time.

Despite its title, the show gives little nod to the season, save for the occasional snowy projection or snippet of a Christmas song. But it provides a holiday treat for those magic fans interested in seeing it performed live rather than from the remove of a television screen.

Venue: Marquis Theatre, New York
Cast: Colin Cloud, Chloe Crawford, Shin Lim, Darcy Oake, Adam Trent, Light Balance
Director-choreographer: Neil Dorward
Associate director-choreographer: Jenn Rapp
Lighting designer: Paul Smith
Costume designer: Angela Aaron
Music: Evan Jolly
Presented by Simon Painter, Tim Lawson, MagicSpace Entertainment, Kilburn Live