By combining the pyrotechnics of a WWE spectacular with the new age-y hubris of a Cris Angel Mind-Freak magic show, last year’s improbable Broadway success (with plans to return this holiday season) of “The Illusionists” opened at Hartford’s Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts’ Mortenson Hall on Wednesday night, September 23, in an over-produced yet somewhat satisfying venture that showcased some of the various genres within contemporary magic performance.
The evening brings together seven magicians—or illusionists—as they like to be billed who take turns presenting one or two of their more impressive routines to the accompaniment of Evan Jolly’s loud pre-recorded suspenseful music and an unrelenting light and laser show, no doubt helping to adhere to the magicians’ credo of distracting the audience and diverting their attention so that the sleight of hand or nail-biting escape can be accomplished right before the audience’s eyes.
A rather lengthy opening sequence introduces the audience to the seven artists who go by such stage names as “The Trickster” or “The Escapologist,” the latter of whom is first seen hanging upside down at the back of the stage successfully removing himself from the confines of a strait-jacket. As they move back and forth across the stage in carefully choreographed movements, one will stop, be suddenly spot-lit and perform a quick bit of prestidigitation and move on, as the troupe is accompanied by four dancers, two male and two female, who will also serve as magicians’ assistants throughout the evening.
The stage is kept dark, except when acts are highlighted by Paul Miller’s constantly in motion lighting design, while Angela Aaron’s nearly all black costumes help sustain the spooky mood, except for the occasional all white outfit designed to provide contrast or call attention to a special moment. The magician’s props, the curtains, and even the floor are for the most part black, again to deceive the eye and emphasize the aura of mystery. There’s also a large video screen that descends from the top of the Bushnell proscenium so that the folks in the mezzanine and balcony can feel part of the onstage action, particularly for some impressive card tricks that require close up viewing even for people in the orchestra seats, or as the British born Daredevil says, “the stalls.”
The overall direction and choreography are credited to Neil Dorward who has worked on various Cirque-style shows internationally, particularly those that deal in illusion and feats of danger. Fortunately, the seven performers’ acts are sufficiently different so that the evening always seem fresh, though indeed some acts are more successful than others and probably appeal to different segments of the audience.
Serving as a sort-of master of ceremonies is Jeff Hobson’s Trickster, the equivalent of a Vegas stand-up comic allowed to incorporate a little skullduggery and audience participation into his act as he mixes amiably among the theater patrons throughout the show selecting a few to join him in a few onstage tricks. It’s always enjoyable to have a magician who mixes humor into his routine, which Hobson does well, especially as his audience grows more comfortable with him and he allows a Liberace style glamour and gay innuendo to slip into his charms.
Equally funny yet capable of the occasional shock is the Anti-Conjuror of Dan Sperry, appearing as a disarming long haired youthful escapee from Kiss with a nod to Cris Angel who attempts his own take on the rabbit in a hat routine that culminates in a delicious flurry of white doves of various sizes (and a cockatoo) appearing out of thin air.
The stocky Kevin James appears as The Inventor, who it is claimed, has created various devices and contraptions that can perform miraculous acts, including a chainsaw that can cut a man in half, allowing his now-short torso to dance atop an operating cart, while his feet kick up a storm as they hang off the cart. Of course he then reconnects both parts enabling the now re-joined man to easily run off the stage in control of all of his capacities. Jonathan Goodwin’s Daredevil, meanwhile, invites an audience member onto the stage to try out a bed of nails, which he then reduces to a single nail that he lays his own neck on while stretching out his body, asking the volunteer to sledgehammer a cement block that he has placed on his chest. It is not quite a gross as this description sounds, but it can be nerve-jarring.
Two of the performers are allotted one special number each. Ben Blaque as the Weapon Master demonstrates his ability with bow and arrow, shooting targets held in various locations and configurations by an overly-confident assistant, including one aimed selfie style through his iPhone. These arrows are larger and significantly bulkier than those encountered in similar magic acts, which increases the supposed danger from a carefully situated multiple target scenario designed to allow the Weapon Master to shoot an apple off of his own head. On opening night, one of his arrows failed to jar a target strongly enough to set off the next bow, so his assistant had to step in and release the arrow so it could proceed to the next target and release the next arrow. A h-arrowing moment for performers and audience as well.
Andrew Basso’s Escapologist recreates one of his idol, Harry Houdini’s, escapes after being handcuffed and hung upside down into a tank of water, forced to hold his breath while trying to resolve his dilemma. Note to the evening’s director and to the escapologist: the way you stage the opening of the escape reveals just a bit too much about the prestige’s inner workings, particularly for anyone who has taken a basic physics course. Nonetheless, the clearly athletic Basso’s ability to hold his breath for a considerable length of time is impressive.
The most impressive illusionist of the evening is Yu Ho-Jin, billed as the Manipulator, who is the 2014 Magician of the Year as named by the Academy of Magical Arts. This smooth, inviting young magician, with a mere deck of cards, can move his hands at lightning speed in a clever, creative act that spins, twirls, recirculates and ultimately changes the actual design and shape of any number of the cards in stunning, awe producing configurations. It’s easy to see why he was named Magician of the Year and it is appropriate that he is given the post-curtain call encore, in which he impresses yet again, ending on a surprising and suitable local note.
As a spectacle, The Illusionists employs every trick in the book of theatrical design to entertain and maintain interest. The magic is not as impressive and earth-shattering as I had hoped, and as someone who admittedly has some basic understanding of magic since college days discovering the Little Jack Horner Joke and Magic Shop in Boston, it wasn’t too difficult to figure out a few of the illusions, though I much prefer those that leave me scratching my head and wondering what laws of the universe had to be violated in order to make that action possible. The presentation of all the acts throughout the evening, however, is unparalled and quite genius, guaranteed to involve and perplex those less familiar with magic. The seven illusionists know clearly how to successfully pull off a trick, some accomplished only through years and years of practice and refinement, and to make every moment leading up to the trick count in adding to the suspense or twisting audience expectations. I just wish there could have been more magic and less Broadway style spectacle between illusions—but what is here is genuinely fun and impressive.
“The Illustionists” plays through Sunday evening, September 27, at Hartford’s Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts. For information and tickets, call the Box Office at 860.987.5900 or visit the Bushnell’s website at www.bushnell.org.