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A CurtainUp Review
The truth is that, with an occasional exception and not counting stylistic variations, there's not much that's doable and hasn't been done in the world of prestidigitation. So what's a magic show to do? Gussy itself up with high volume music, low comedy, and outrageous costumes? Add glitz and glory with dry ice and a large video screen? The answer is a resounding yes to both questions, at least if you're talking about The Illusionists at the Marquis Theatre.
The Illusionists , all of whose featured artists have monikers worthy of Batman villains, begins with The Futurist (Adam Trent) bantering with the audience in the style of a likable game show host. He puts a special jacket on an audience "volunteer" (Audience members are regularly conscripted into service throughout the show.) so that his arms appear to belong to the volunteer. It's a cute gimmick devoid of magical pretensions that starts the show on a friendly note.
While The Futurist serves more or less as the show's host, he gets considerable help from The Trickster (Jeff Hobson). Hobson's persona is that of a flamboyantly limp-wristed dandy, circa 1969. Occasionally funny, he has a penchant for belittling individual audience members, which soon becomes tired. His hackneyed routine is more dated than offensive, although some would argue he combines both qualities.
The show's high point hands down comes at the end of the first act. Following an on-screen presentation about the legendary Harry Houdini, we're introduced to The Escapologist (Andrew Basso), who performs a version of Houdini's most notorious exploit. After being lowered into a tank of water head down with his hands cuffed and his feet manacled to the top of the tank, Basso sets out to escape. Forced to refrain from breathing for several minutes while he overcomes his restraints one by one, Basso pushes your heart into your throat as you watch. Audience anticipation is - dare I say it - breathless. The feat is a stunner, even drowned as it is in incessant, ominous music.
The Anti-Conjuror (Dan Sperry) is a mixed bag. A Beetlejuice lookalike if ever there was one, his first act stint is a variation of Russian Roulette. An audience member is asked to slam her hand down on one of four paper bags, not knowing which contains a broken beer bottle. We and she know Sperry will not let her get hurt, but her seeming predicament is more troubling than entertaining.
Sperry redeems himself to a certain extent in the second act with bird tricks, of all things. His mixing real birds with mechanical ones and changing a bird's color provide a fresh take on an old trick.
Other performers include The Manipulator (Yu Ho-Jin), who makes a seeming infinity of cards appear from nowhere, and The Inventor (Kevin James), who specializes in disassembling and reassembling human bodies. The Warrior (Aaron Crow) is a complete mystery. Onstage for what seems like less than five minutes, he shoots one arrow through an apple, retrieves a ring, and then is gone.
Angela Aaron's glam-goth costumes for the magic assistants recall The Rocky Horror Picture Show, with a high fashion twist. They're striking. Attire for actual illusionists alternates between black and bland. The Manipulator wears black tails and The Escapologist a sexy black swimsuit. The Warrior's silver-chained, sleeveless, calf-length black coat would not be out of place in a Star Wars movie. The Anti-Conjuror's grunge-goth duds are predictably black or blackish.
The show's pacing is spot on. The chic magic assistants move and pose with an appropriately Vogue-like quality.
A cameraman is present throughout. He ensures that all can be seen on the imposing video screen, which is surely a necessity for the back of the house in the cavernous Marquis but can be a major distraction. It calls into question the wisdom of having a magic show in such a big venue in the first place. It's a bit like seeing a rock concert at a football stadium.
While my three companions (an adult and two teenagers) all gave the show thumbs up, they also acknowledged its shortcomings. The Illusionists has genuine appeal, but its blaring music, hokey jokes, and sense of self-importance get in the way. It's more sizzle than steak.