By: Angela Guardiani
Professional magic is serious business.
Magic is a highly competitive field, with performers jealously guarding their techniques and participating in high-stakes competitions. There’s intense self-promotion and branding and a kind of swaggering machismo in this very male-dominated art form, and if I asked you - quick! - to name a modern magician/illusionist, I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts that the first person that came into your head was Criss Angel, better known for his broody, Goth-y persona than for sunshine and lollipops.
It was a pleasant surprise to me, then, that The Illusionists: Live From Broadway was so much fun. Seven headliners give us a solid evening’s worth of pure entertainment, doing acts that have very different definitions of what “magic” is. The feeling that links them all, though, is amazement - a pure, exhilarating rush of OMG what did I just see? that far too many adults are missing in their lives. The audience was a mix of magic newbies and dedicated fans, but all of us participated in the same delightful suspension of disbelief.
As you approach the Princess of Wales Theatre, you’ll notice the abundance of promotional material for the show, mostly atmospheric pictures of seven men that could be Doctor Who (quirky suits, funky hair, guyliner, and so many frock coats. Never let it be said that magic isn’t the most flamboyant of the stage arts). Once settled in your seat, though, you’ll find that many of the performers have a very warm and engaging stage presence. Darcy Oake, who goes by the stage name of The Grand Illusionist, has a very hard-rock aesthetic - leather, tattoos, driving electrical guitar solos - but in one of the most delightful moments of the show, he came down to the front row and made a card appear inside a bottle for an astounded ten-year-old. The glee he took in her obvious wonder made it clear that Oake is still a geeky kid from Winnipeg fascinated by his dad’s card tricks. (Then he made a motorbike appear out of literally nowhere, so perhaps the rock-star analogy is still a good fit for him.)
Oake is both an illusionist and a magician - that is, he performs illusion with large sets and props, but also sleight-of-hand using familiar items like coins and cards. An Ha Lim couldn’t be more different. He’s a manipulator, making cards bloom like flowers from his fingertips. Keep in mind, he does this while his sleeves are rolled up! Charlie Frye is a beautiful clown straight from the vaudeville era who can juggle, use linking rings, spin plates, and balance a pole on his forehead, sometimes all at the same time.
Jeff Hobson goes by the name of The Trickster and, frankly, could be called The Joker just as easily - imagine the flamboyance of Liberace, the comic snark of Joan Rivers, and the sequins of RuPaul in one glamorous package. (Also, don’t wear anything expensive on your wrist.) Raymond Crowe is the most Doctor Who-like of the bunch, making a borrowed jacket dance in the air and creating lovely shadow puppets from just his hands. Colin Cloud is a mentalist, the freakiest and most convincing type of magic there is. He will make you believe he can read your mind and pull the most astonishing facts - like the phone password of a complete stranger - out of thin air.
One of the evening’s most astounding performers, though, isn’t a magician or illusionist at all. Jonathan Goodwin is a stuntman and escape artist, and everything he does is real. At the end of the first act, Goodwin does a routine with fire that had the audience dead silent. I’m not going to spoil it for you, but I will say that, from my seat, I could feel the heat of the flames. They don’t call him The Daredevil for nothing.
It’s been a long time since I heard - and participated! - in oohs and ahhhs in a theatre. I’ve seen a lot of shows and as production values get higher all the time, audiences are not so easy to amaze. But The Illusionists will take you to a place where magic is possible. Enjoy it, and leave your skepticism at home.