'The Illusionists — Witness the Impossible': Theater Review

The Illusionists Production Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Boneau Bryan Brown

The Illusionists Production Still - H 2014

Slight of hand

Vegas comes to Broadway in this touring magic-act showcase, which assembles seven flamboyant illusionists of various styles

Magic for limited 21st century attention spans is the defining aspect of The Illusionists — Witness the Impossible, the assemblage of seven magicians now performing on Broadway prior to a 30-city U.S. tour. Gussying up its familiar tricks with high-class production values reminiscent of Cirque du Soleil, this show, while seemingly made for Vegas casinos, has the feel of a Fox television special. However, unlike that network's controversial '90s-era magic specials the secrets are not revealed.

The Illusionists grossed an impressive million dollars-plus during its Thanksgiving opening week. It features a murderer's row of magicians, all given colorful nicknames. The Italian Andrew Basso is "The Escapologist," no explanation necessary; South Korean Yu Ho-Jin is "The Manipulator," performing elegant sleight of hand; the Belgian Aaron Crow is "The Warrior," specializing in "weapon magic"; the avuncular Kevin James is "The Inventor"; and Dan Sperry, the best-known of the bunch thanks to his appearance on America's Got Talent, is the goth-like "Anti-Conjurer." Adam Trent, "The Futurist," acts as the evening's de facto emcee, while Jeff Hobson, the campy, "Trickster," provides welcome comic relief.

Performing with an onstage rock band dubbed "Z" and several flamboyantly dressed back-up dancers, the septet deliver the standard range of illusions, most of which are decidedly of the small-scale variety. Indeed, audience members will inevitably find themselves spending much of the time watching the giant video screen on which close-ups of the tricks, filmed by a roving cameraman, are projected.

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To call the evening a mixed bag is an understatement. For every reasonably effective illusion, there's another that lands with a thud. Much of the merriment is provided by the hapless "volunteers" from the audience, recruited into the action: Be warned, practically no one seated in the orchestra section is safe.

The many card tricks on display fail to make much of an impact in the large venue, and anyone who saw Ricky Jay's virtuosic off-Broadway shows will likely be unimpressed. The exception is Yu, whose silent routines are performed with a mesmerizing fluid grace.

A couple of the performers are unaccountably afforded only single routines. Basso effectively recreates Houdini's famous Water Torture Cell escape, with the difference that his exertions are fully visible. Seemingly holding his breath for over three minutes as he escaped from the fiendish contraption, he clearly had the audience on the edge of their seats.

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On the other hand, the non-speaking Crow, despite his fearsome appearance, proved less than galvanizing while shooting an arrow dangerously close to a woman's head.

Sperry, resembling a less threatening Marilyn Manson, garnered a tumultuous response to his gross-out America's Got Talent illusion involving a swallowed mint and a piece of dental floss. He later displayed impressive comic flair while manipulating a female audience member through a Russian Roulette-inspired routine involving paper bags filled with broken glass.

Trent proves himself an ingratiating host, as well as superbly delivering an elaborately choreographed routine in which he interacts with video images. Hobson is consistently amusing with his arch, Paul Lynde-style comic persona.

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More than a few of the illusions are familiar — yes, we get to see a person sawn in half, although James manages to invest it with a new flair — and the evening ends with a whimper rather than a bang. But magic is rarely seen on Broadway these days (David Copperfield had a very successful limited engagement way back in 1996), so The Illusionists — Witness the Impossible should make plenty of people's money disappear during its well-timed holiday run.

Cast: Andrew Basso, Aaron Crow, Jeff Hobson, Yu Ho-Jin, Kevin James, Dan Sperry, Adam Trent
Director-choreographer: Neil Dorward
Creative producer: Simon Painter
Executive producer: Tim Lawson
Creative director: Jim Millan
Lighting designer: Paul Miller
Costume designer: Angela Aaron
Video designer: Darrel Maloney
Illusion designer: Don Wayne
Music: Evan Jolly
Presented by Simon Painter, Tim Lawson, MagicSpace Entertainment, Road Show Theatrical and The Production Office