The Illusionists – Live from Broadway
Simon Painter, Creative Producer
Over-the-top Vegas garishness of flashing lights and lasers, a harshly mod set design, goth-dressed dancers looking angry as they stomp and flip wildly about, and blaring pumped-up music could not cover up how underwhelming SHN’s latest touring offering, The Illusionists – Live from Broadway, was on its opening night in San Francisco. The folks at SHN must have done surprised double takes, rereading the contracts and the New York reviews to remember what had been promised them. Missing from the show, with no explanation given to audience by announcement or by a written program (that was also curiously missing), was the top-billed performer of the show, Yo Ho-Jin, 2014’s “Magician of the Year” and winner of something touted as the “Olympics of Magic.” Never to show also was the evening’s promised biggest event, the re-creation of Houdini’s famous Water Torture Cell (supposedly with ‘no covers’ even). Gone were any signs of acts of promised “levitation” acts. The first few minutes of the show on opening night should have been a give-away that something was amiss on this tour since the grand entrance of the six performers who did show up was totally botched and looked rather amateurish and silly. Most of the audience beyond the first dozen rows could make neither heads nor tails of the first two acts since they required close-up attention; and the giant projection screen failed to lower. Ouch. “The mind-blowing spectacular,” as the pre-publicity and website promised, quickly began to look rather ho-hum on opening night.
For folks who have been to a number of magic shows in the past, there are a number of ‘old favorites’ that pop up during this highly inflated show of wonders. Remember the one with three ropes of varying lengths that suddenly become equal-lengths before returning to their original sizes? Or how about audience participants’ watches all ending up in a magician’s pocket, only to be returned at the end of the evening? And how many more times must we see a guy shoot arrows at a pretty girl’s balloons? Good tricks, but old tricks all.
But as the evening progresses, there are definitely some moments that are in fact eye-popping and maybe close to jaw-dropping. When really focusing on illusions (i.e., “a deceptive appearance or impression”, according to the dictionary) versus just tricks or slights of hand, the show is at its best. A torn-apart doll all of a sudden becomes a small person – a Charlie Chaplin in walking as alive as can be. A separated body’s top half on a table continues to move his hands and grabs the arm of a really frightened audience member. And, tt is always cool to see when right before us people disappear in one spot and reappear in another like when lowered flames engulf a tied-up man in a cage, he disappears in the smoke, and then seconds later, walks down the aisle of the auditorium. Now how did they do that?
The Vegas (or maybe just Reno) air of the evening is further played out in the names given the seven – oh yeah, just six – performers. MC’ing the evening is “The Trickster” (Jeff Hobson), a cross in his fem swishes and gay-stereotyped mannerisms between Liberace (with the glitter but without the piano) and Paul Lynde (with the sexual innuendos and without the squares). He is the performer that gets by far the most stage time, much of it taken in walking the aisles and kibitzing with the audience, especially hunky guys. He does some good tricks in between all his jokes, including an opening card trick where a coughed-up playing card folded and covered in saliva play a big part in amazing his audience partner.
Frequent appearances are also made by “The Anti-Conjurer,” in the person of multi-tattooed and metal-pierced Dan Sperry with his blackened eyes and lips, his purple-painted forehead, and his hair braided and flowing from a partially shaved head. His works of magic bring on gasps and groans as more than one stomach must have turned over in watching them. Seeing a string of floss penetrate his neck and then the skin to be pulled far away from his Adam’s apple or a quarter go into an eye only to come oozing out of a knife-sliced, supposedly-bleeding arm still make me a little nauseous just writing about them. But maybe the nicest trick of the evening is when he produces a half dozen white pigeons from pieces of paper and then in a split second turns the pigeons into a one, beautiful, flying cockatoo. Now I was on the fourth row, and I could not see any way all that could have really happened!
Kevin James is “The Inventor” in blue glasses and a three-piece, steam-punk suit. He performs with a ten-year-old boy from the audience another variation of an old trick, quarter into bottle and out again a number of times, but he does charm both the boy and audience in doing so. He is the one that also specializes in seemingly taking apart and putting bodies back together again and does so all the time with a big smile and glad hands.
Ben Blaque is “The Weapon Master” with his cross bow and large-bosomed, under-clad assistant. His blindfolded feat of shooting an apple off his own head after first hitting six other targets certainly comes with real danger but again feels more like a much-practiced trick and skill than a grand illusion.
The anticipated water escape that for some reason Andrew Basso (of course named “The Escapologist”) does not perform is substituted by an impressive, but frankly another seen-this-before-many-times escape from a straight jacket, albeit it hanging before us upside down. (He does get to show off his six-pack abs as part of the show, much to the delight of all women – and in SF, many men – in the audience.) Another hunky guy who draws his share of oohs and ahs just by walking onto the stage is James More, “The Deceptionist.” The box containing his cute body with only head, hands, and feet showing collapses from coffin size to one not much larger than a box meant for shoes. He also is the one performing in a couple of now-you-see-him, now-you-don’t acts that are in fact, pretty good illusions.
If all of the things that work in the show could be done with a bit less false flair and flamboyance and if all that was promised had been delivered in full to those who paid top dollar to come to SHN’s Orpheum, then The Illusionists might in fact live up to its billing. But at least on the opening night of this tour stop, the good was not great enough to fully outweigh the bad and ugly.
Rating: 3 E
The Illusionist – Live from Broadway continues through February 21, 2016 at SHN’s Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available online at https://www.shnsf.com/ , by visiting the box office at the theatre, or by calling 888-746-1799.
Photo Credit: The Illusionists