The Illusionists Live From Broadway, which bills itself as the "next generation" in magic, arrived at Chicago's Oriental Theatre last week (February 21-16) trailing clouds of hype -- as magic shows have always done. Featuring seven performers, each with his own specialty, The Illusionists promises high-gloss wonder. If what we saw at the Saturday matinee is any indication, it mostly delivers, even if many of the effects are likely to be very familiar to fans of stage magic.
As a former magician myself, I've become something of a connoisseur of conjuring over the years. There's nothing I love more than a good magic act, and The Illusionists delivered six very fine ones when we saw the show (Dan Sperry, "The Anti-Conjurer," was inexplicably absent).
I was most impressed by Korean sleight of hand artist An Ha Lim's gracefully balletic way of producing seemingly endless fans of cards from thin air. Although nearly every magician who has ever cracked a book on card tricks knows the principles Mr. Lim employs, only a precious few take them to his stratospheric heights. His routine is a double illusion in that it, like Fred Astaire's dancing, creates the impression of effortlessness that only comes with years of effort.
The larger-scale illusions of Kevin James ("The Inventor"), while not especially novel, were nevertheless slick and flawlessly executed. His best effect, for me, was an ingenious variation on the traditional "solid through solid" gag with a coin and a Perrier bottle, all done right under the delighted nose of a young volunteer from the audience.
Andrew Basso, "The Escapologist," also impressed with the Water Torture Cell escape that was a fixture of Houdini's act for a number of years. Handcuffed and with his ankles locked in stocks, the performer is suspended upside-down in a tank of water and must escape before his air runs out. Houdini used to do it behind a curtain, extricating himself within a couple of minutes but drawing out the suspense until everyone was sure he must have drowned. Mr. Basso does it in full view of the audience using a paper clip to pick the locks, which puts him one up on Houdini.
Colin Cloud, billed as "The Deductionist," does a mentalist act, making seemingly miraculous predictions and appearing to read the minds of volunteers. He presents it all as a form of observation and deduction in the manner of Sherlock Holmes, and some of it probably is, although he appears to use some more traditional tricks of the trade as well. It is, in any case, a very entertaining specialty, and Mr. Cloud is a most engaging performer.
Jonathan Goodwin, a.k.a "The Daredevil," has only one number, but it's a goodie involving sharpshooting with a crossbow. His finale involves putting on a blindfold and hitting a balloon held over the head of his assistant, guided only by the sound of a bell. If it's an illusion, it's an incredibly realistic one. If it's not, maybe his assistant should be labeled a daredevil as well.
Less interesting, for me, was the comedy act of Jeff Hobson, who is billed as "The Trickster." He's the MC, which means he gets more stage time than anyone else, and I thought his Liberace-esque persona and nonstop "gay" jokes got a bit old after a while as a result. Most of his tricks also cover very familiar territory. He does a nifty "egg bag" routine, though, and in all fairness most of the audience clearly found him entertaining.
So while The Illusionists certainly delivered a couple of hours of solid entertainment it did not entirely live up its hype. I was hoping for more big, spectacular illusions and a bit more sleight of hand. Overall, I think this would be a stronger show with fewer acts and more time devoted to each one, especially Mr. James and Mr. Lim. Your mileage may vary.
The illusionists Live From Broadway closed its Chicago run on Sunday, February 27, and will make several more stops before playing the Fox here in St. Louis at the end of March.