One of Milwaukee’s premier performing spaces, the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, has never seemed too big of a space for the Broadway plays and musicals (and Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra concerts, Milwaukee Ballet performances, etc.). But when The Illusionists: Live from Broadway took the stage, many of the “illusions” were more suited to an intimate space. Thankfully, a camera person also was onstage, filming the performance so it could be viewed on a large overhead screen. While this gave the audience a much clearer, closer view of the abracadabra antics, it also diminished some of the excitement of watching a live performance.
Still, The Illusionists has much to offer. The seven featured magicians are truly excellent performers, who deliver a highly theatrical, entertaining evening. The show (with a few different performers) played at Broadway’s Marriott Marquis Theater in 2015-2016.
This Las Vegas-style show is fast-paced and glitzy. Billed as “magic for a new generation,” The Illusionists has enough laser lights, colorful projections and moving parts to give the place a rock-concert aura.
In fact, one of the “hippest” performers, a Marilyn Manson look-alike called “The Anti-Conjuror” (Dan Sperry) is among the most interesting of the magicians. His first “feat” was to “saw” into part of his neck with a bit of dental floss, which he eventually extruded with a lifesaver candy on it. While that elicited a few “ewwws” from the audience, Sperry redeemed himself in Act II. Instead of using a typical wand to pull a rabbit out of a hat, Sperry used a rifle for the job (no spoilers here). Sperry finished his act by producing a flock of pigeons, some of which swooped over the audience’s heads.
If this magic stuff doesn’t sound groundbreaking, well, it isn’t. Aside from some gothic costumes (worn by Sperry and six dancers/assistants), it is pretty much what one might expect from any magic show. Still, the tricks are well-executed, with creative lighting and dramatic music to enhance the effects.
The show also has a lot of adult humor that is sure to go over kids’ heads, especially when emcee Jeff Hobson (The Trickster) takes the stage. He practically prances through his routine, inserting humorous asides. This genial host isn’t above making himself the butt of the jokes, but he lobs a few at the audience, too. Here’s a lesson: Don’t sit in the first two rows unless you’re eager to participate onstage.
One plump woman surely regretted her decision to wear a red, Christmas-themed sweatshirt on Valentine’s Day. Dobson was careful not to make her feel too embarrassed about her mismatched clothing (“well, valentine and Christmas do have the same number of letters,” Hobson quipped).
Another memorable bit involved a little girl from the audience who “assisted” Kevin James (‘the inventor’) in making an origami bird hop up and down his arm. Seeing that she wasn’t sufficiently dazzled by the feat, he set a paper flower on fire and it turned into a large red rose, which he gave to the girl as a souvenir.
One of the evening’s most breath-taking “illusions” was among the oldest, as Andrew Basso (“the escapologist”) attempted to duplicate one of Harry Houdini’s most famous escapes. The genial emcee explained that when Houdini performed the feat 100 years ago, his masterpiece was called the “water torture.” A series of projections behind the tank showed a young, muscular Houdini, while Basso was handcuffed and lifted upside down into a tank of water. Perhaps the projections were unnecessary for a Wisconsin audience, as Houdini (originally known as Eric Weiss) was raised, in Appleton, Wis. Many in the audience probably also knew that an ailing Houdini performed on final night of his life.
So the hush that filled the theater on opening night was real, as the audience watched this modern-day Houdini pry himself out of the handcuffs (using only a paper clip), then folding his body in half to reach the top of the tank, where he freed his feet from another lock. The entire feat took almost three minutes. How wonderful it is to think that, even in this technologically advanced age, something as simple as a man trapped underwater can still captivate thousands of people.