The Vegas-style entertainment show “The Illusionists” has returned to Broadway in time for the holidays. Unfortunately this latest iteration, the group’s fourth appearance on Broadway, offers many tricks, but little magic. A flashy extravaganza on a world tour, the show is a revue on steroids that rotates headlining magic talent. The current cast features a “hit parade” of five magicians who set out to “wow” us in turn with their credibility defying stunts. In addition to sporting superhero names, “The Grand Illusionist,” “The Sorceress” and so forth, the pop culture credentials of the group — Shin Lim was the recent winner of “America’s Got Talent” — are relentlessly touted by host Adam Trent (“The Futurist”) in case we would rather not read the Playbill.
A word of warning: The proceedings feature a significant amount of audience participation, so if you are not keen on that sort of thing, avoid buying seats in the first half of the orchestra. You may feel like you are attending an overextended English pantomime.
Among the five magicians, mentalist Colin Cloud, who mixed self-deprecating humor with astounding psychic phenomena, impressed me the most. Lim brought an almost poetic elegance to his “close hand” card conjuring, while Darcy Oake’s work with doves was briefly entrancing. Trent, the futurist, danced with projections of himself — presumably the melding of 21st century technology with magic IS the future.
Least captivating was the sole woman, Chloé Crawford. Her one contribution, which she justifiably describes as “disturbing,” is the swallowing of razor blades that reemerge tethered to a single string. This is a standard stunt with an added “ick” factor here. The former Sports Illustrated swimsuit model invited a middle-aged man to the stage for a Christmas dinner date, lending an uncomfortable sexual undertone to the bit. (Later Crawford shows up astride a motorcycle conjured by a fellow magician – additional cringe.) Special guest LED dance troupe “Light Balance” breaks up the line up of illusions with choreography that is meant to feel contemporary, but somehow misses the mark.
The patter setting up the illusions seems designed to coach the audience into ever-escalating stupefied admiration — if the applause meter dips, we are only half-jokingly chastised. “We have spent our lives mastering this domain and aren’t we amazing?” is the message from the stage.
But because the magicians continually boast about their technical skills, they dispel any illusion of magic — the audience does not get a moment to suspend their disbelief and believe in the supernatural, even briefly, because the magicians keep taking credit for the tricks.
Much is made of the international origins of group. Two are from the United Kingdom, two from Canada and one from the U.S. Apparently this rather tame diversity is sufficient to deserve the claim, “We come from all over the world, but are united by our dedication to magic.” (One might imagine that new heights of global detente will follow.) Similarly, the phrase “this changed my life,” which refers to the epiphany moment many have when first attending a live magic show and discovering one’s life purpose, is worn out by the end of the evening.
We also watch home movie footage of the early career of precocious Trent and learn about his now deceased aunt, who was an early supporter. This is more than a little manipulative, even by the usual standards of holiday schmaltz. However, introductory magic kits are conveniently on sale in the lobby for any young fry seduced by the induction tales.
While the overall impression is of an inconsistently paced, stitched together affair, director Neil Dorward does ensure that the audience in the 1,600-seat Marquis Theatre is able to see all of the sleight of hand from a 360-degree perspective, as the tricks are picked up by a live video feed and projected onto a number of screens.
Projections of brownstones featuring Christmas trees in their windows and dustings of fake snow are interpolated in the background to do homage to the holiday theme. (Christmas is apparently the only holiday worthy of being celebrated — no inclusion of Hanukkah for example.) No Vari-Lite goes unused in the laser and spot-drenched lighting design of Paul Smith, which accompanies a score by Evan Jolly that alternates between Hallmark sentimentality and throbbing rock ‘n’ roll excitement intended to heighten the nonexistent suspense.
Diehard fans of magic and illusion will likely get their money’s worth at “The Illusionists.” My wish, however, was for fewer gimmicks and more heart.
“The Illusionists: The Magic of the Holidays” began performances at the Marquis Theatre on Fri., Nov 23 and will play through Sun., Dec. 30.
Creative: Music by Evan Jolly; Orchestral Recordings: Prague Symphony Orchestra; Creative Director: Neil Dorward ;Costume Design by Angela Aaron; Lighting Design by Paul Smith; Illusion Designer: Don Wayne; Video Design by 4u2c.
Producers: Simon Painter, Tim Lawson, MagicSpace Entertainment and Kilburn Live.
Cast: Colin Cloud, Chloé Crawford, Shin Lim, Darcy Oake, Adam Trent, Light Balance.