Here’s how you know that “The Illusionists,” the production kicking off the Arsht Center’s Broadway in Miami series this week, is not your father’s magic show.
The seven stars materialize inside a previously empty clear box, as rock music thunders and concert-style lighting blazes. A large closeup-friendly screen dangles over the stage, because it’s otherwise tough to appreciate the nuances of card tricks in a 2,400-seat theater. And though a magician — Dan Sperry, aka The Anti-Conjurer — does indeed extract a rabbit from a top hat, he deconstructs the trick by blasting the (fake) bunny out with a shotgun, tearing it apart and adding its not-so-lucky foot to his keychain.
“The Illusionists” is next-generation magic for those who love “America’s Got Talent” and Las Vegas-style spectacle. The performers and director Neil Dorward utilize lots of audience participation — if you’re prone to stage fright, don’t sit up front where you can be drafted into “volunteering” — and the show packs plenty of magical variety into its swiftly flowing two hours. With assistants, actors and dancers fleshing out the cast, the majority of the artists perform several different segments, making for an experience that never grows dull or repetitive.
Jeff Hobson, dubbed The Trickster, is a magician and the show’s sassy narrator. Favoring sparkly jackets with equally sparkling shoes, he’s a blend of Liberace and Dame Edna, proudly and entertainingly flamboyant as he confesses, “I can’t even think straight.” He’s quick with the perfect comeback, funny and just right as the host.
Sperry, the guy who does the rabbit trick, takes “The Illusionists” into PG-13 territory. Looking like a character conjured on “American Horror Story,” Sperry specializes in attitude, irony and cringe-inducing tricks.
One, involving dental floss that seems to snake side-to-side through his throat, and another utilizing a coin, his eyeball and a bloody subcutaneous extraction gets the crowd moaning its discomfort. But a final bit with color- and species-changing birds more than earns its appreciative applause.
Kevin James, a Michigan-born magician known as The Inventor, brings a mad-scientist vibe mixed with sweetness to the stage. Watch as he assembles a little person version of Charlie Chaplin from spare parts, then seemingly separates a doctor’s torso from his legs. Yet he also picks a cute little girl from the audience to help him make a paper bird dance, transforms a paper rose into a real one, then creates a wondrous snowstorm that brings the magic of winter to indoor Miami.
Colin Cloud, a striking and amusing Scotsman known as The Deductionist, turns Sherlock Holmes to draw some amazingly precise conclusions about a pair of audience volunteers. How does he do it? We don’t want to crack the mystery. Ben Blaque, a rock star of a magician called The Weapon Master, does a series of amazing tricks with a crossbow that has the crowd holding its collective breath over the prospect that one little slip could plunge his pretty assistant or Blaque himself into arrow-pierced agony.
Andrew Basso, an Italian performer known as The Escapologist, passed up Harry Houdini’s Water Torture Cell trick on opening night because of safety concerns. Instead, he devised a cute interaction with a guy and a girl. The two followed his instructions and tightly tied Basso’s wrists together, but as he slipped easily in and out of the red rope binding him, he might as well have been “restrained” with imaginary string.
Prize-winning South Korean magician Yu Ho-Jin, aka The Manipulator, is the performer who benefits most from that hovering screen. He transforms a white scarf into a deck of cards, then further transforms the cards while radiating a charismatic dreaminess and self-assurance.
“The Illusionists” has had two short runs on Broadway, with most of the performers at the Arsht featured in one or both of those casts. These illusionists know how to work a very big room, and though more traditional Broadway fare will follow later in the season, these seven performers have mastered the trick of transforming a magic show into an amped-up spectacle.
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