Nothing Up Their Sleeves at Champions of Magic

The Champions of Magic will wow you with their illusions.
The Champions of Magic will wow you with their illusions. Bill Axell and Ricardo Herrera
There's not an “Abracadabra” to be heard inside Hobby Center's Zilkha Hall during the dazzling display of magic on hand – many hands, many deft hands – from the Champions of Magic, wowing everyone until February 17 on its American tour.

Neither is there an “Open Sesame” from The Thief of Baghdad nor “From the land beyond beyond...” the incantation to summon the genie in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. But there are genies in abundance, elves near the shadows, and “whispering imps” darting to and fro which account for the fantastic illusions and sleights of hand which bedazzle and amaze. How else to explain those marvels that happen right before your eyes that defy the laws of physics, to say nothing of the natural order of the universe. If it's not pixies up their sleeves, then it must be magic. Utter sheer magic.

The prestidigitation is spectacular. Five magicians, joined by two assistants later in the evening, work wonders that leave you breathless. Young and Strange, an English Penn and Teller, although neither one is mute, perform classic illusions like the lady sawed in two, or the disappearing body in a box to be instantly replaced by someone else, or the vanishing tiger á la Siegfried and Roy. They're a comic duo, trying to outdo each other. Young's Red Light, Green Light routine (I think it was Young) with flashing and vanishing little lights on the tips of his fingers is repeated to the delight of everyone.

Hollie England is a comely magician with the lithe body of a dancer who swallows pins from a tea cup and a piece of thread from her teddy bear and pulls the string out from her mouth with all needles neatly strung. Then she'll do a bit of silhouette art, burn it up, and it suddenly morphs into what the audience member asked for in secret. Amazing. She's pretty and dangerous.

Mexican-American illusionist Fernando Velasco, influenced by master magician Harry Houdini, duplicates the great one's water torture trick where he's bound in a straitjacket, feet shackled to a locked board, and lowered upside down into a glass case filled with water. His heart monitor is amplified for dramatic effect, and a sheet is pulled over the box as the precious seconds tick away. When the sheet is ripped off with dramatic flourish, the box is empty, and Velasco appears at the back of the theater, dripping wet and surrounded by banks of fog. It's quite the show.

Another feat rhapsodizes his father who loved astronomy. Dad would tear up pieces of aluminum foil and scatter them in front of the boy's telescope when the stars were hidden by clouds. Velasco idly tears up a piece of foil and cools his hand with a Japanese paper fan. Suddenly, foil pieces stream from his hand. Seeming millions of them. They inundate the stage. It's a radiant effect, magical in the extreme.

Lithe and glib, mentalist Alex McAleer is showstopping with his astonishing acts of mind reading. Here's one to ponder: shopping receipts from an audience member are placed in a glass bowl. Another audience member is asked to think of a name. A third member is up on stage and asked to draw a picture on a chalk board and write down a number up to twenty and another number past fifty. McAleer's patter tells the tale of an old magician who used “whispering imps” in his act, which McAleer just happens to have in the casket to help him out. The invisible imp whispers to the girl on stage as she idly draws and writes down the numbers. The reveal stupefies. In a random drawing, one of the receipts is removed from the bowl. Uncrumpled, it reads out the exact number the girl had written down under the influence of the imp; while the name on the receipt is the name the other audience member wrote down. As a final bedazzlement, McAleer holds the imp in his cupped hands up to the video camera. A tiny scaly red hand peeks out before jumping away in a flash. Brilliant.

This sumptuous touring show rivals anything in Vegas, using video cameras to rove through the audience or to reveal up-close and personal the elegant trick as a deck of cards is produced out of thin air and just as deftly disappears. The lighting, the design, the sound are all precise and timed just right. (Unfortunately, there's no Playbill so the backstage magicians must go uncredited.)

There are pyrotechnics not seen since a Super Bowl halftime, enough fog for a midnight tryst in London, and a finale of a confetti cannon that suffocates the front rows. Even when the hapless assistant in a raggedy tiger's costume gets impaled by flaming spikes and then, instantaneously, swapped out for the glamorous leggy assistant, who does acrobatic double duty on the hanging silks, the show bubbles with non-stop fun. The last fifteen minutes are mind-blowing, as one superb trick after another tops the preceding one. The five stellar magicians pump us up with cries of “You want one more?” Of course, we do. And another, and another...

Theater is full of magic and make-believe. Children of all ages will be thrilled by what they think they see and what they actually see and don't see. Champions of Magic is make-believe raised to mesmerizing high art and giddy entertainment. Now, how in hell did they do that astonishing dollar bill trick with a pencil, or that one with the watch, or...?

Champions of Magic. Through February 17. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays; 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays; 1 p.m. Sundays. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. For more information, call 713-315-2525 or visit or $39 - $89.

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover