Short of something going horribly wrong, you don't hear a lot about magic these days unless you actively seek it out. Sure, now and then a story pops up about a up and coming magician who is going to change the industry, and that's great; now, tell me that magician's name.
This is all a shame really, because magic is a delight if you're willing to be open to the experience. It's not entirely unlike wrestling; when magic is good, it can be transcendent, and when it's bad it's still not a bad night out.
These days, if you want to see top level magic you either have to go to Vegas, work somewhere that can afford to bring in a magician for a company event or travel to one of magic competitions across the globe. The Illusionists are trying to change that, but bringing together world class magicians, giving them gimmicks and then taking a show on the road that rivals anything you'd see in Sin City. And it mostly works.
Gone are the days where Houdini could hide behind a curtain for minutes on end pretending to escape from a milk can. Magic shows these days have to be more than spectacle, they have to be an experience. You have to have sets and live music and crowd participation and you can't let the show drag because attention spans are a thing that have to be fed.
While that's all well and good, at the core of The Illusionists are the magicians and the magic that they do. While they may each be assigned a gimmick - one is The Inventor, another is The Futurist, so on and so forth - the performances work best when the magician on stage is connecting on a human level rather than playing up the gimmick they've taken.
Still, it's hard to have seven individual performers in a show and give them all equal amounts of spotlight time, and in the end some of the magicians fare better than others. The Warrior, for example, has a good look and he's got some great non-verbal communication skills, but his big moment in the show goes on a bit too long and isn't quite as spectacular as the people putting together the show think it is.
Likewise, Kevin James as The Inventor has a couple of really good moments where his love of magic comes through and he's really engaging, but then there are parts where he's playing the role of The Inventor and the tricks he performs are just kind of hokey. Plus, try as they might, the set design for his stuff is underwhelming at best, awkwardly silly at worst.
Adam Trent has the most potential as a breakout star of the group. His role in the production is to be the Futurist, which is more exciting than it sounds; apparently the future of magic is tricks you've seen a bunch in the past, just done with a video screen. And that's a shame because he's feels like he's far too talented to be doing what he does the way he does it. He doesn't really feel like he needs a gimmick or The Illusionists at all.
Dan Sperry as the Anti-Conjuror and Jeff Hobson as the Trickster had the best, most consistent showings off the night, largely because they had the sections with the best audience participation sections. Dan Sperry did his twist on the Russian Roulette trick, using broken glass instead of a nail or knife, but where the trick shined was the way he built the trick up through storytelling and timing. There's a bit in this one involving a rubber hammer that had me almost jump out of my seat it was so well timed. Hobson is just pure personality, a pro who, even when things start going off the rails, can roll with whatever the audience gives him. Plus, he knows, like everyone knows, that the easy way to get a Houston audience to laugh to make a joke about Conroe.
The highlight of the night came at the end of Act 1, and loomed large over the rest of the show because the trick, as it were, wasn't even an illusion. Andrew Basso plays The Escapologist and he did a straight up, no frills, no gimmicks Water Torture Cell escape. Handcuffed and suspended upside down in a tank full of water, Basso has to free himself with nothing more than a paperclip and the air in his lungs. That he's able to do it is a testament to human... something. Endurance? The need to tempt fate? To prove that we can do certain things just do do them? Either way, it was a good thing intermission happened when it did, because a lot of people in the audience needed a moment to catch their breath.
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Lastly, there's The Manipulator, Yu Ho-Jin, the magician who you can argue gets the short end of the stick in this production. Here's the problem: he's too talented and his tricks are too good. He is a master at card manipulation, which isn't something that necessarily translates well to a large-scale Vegas-esque production. Watching him felt like watching someone who is really good at something you simply don't understand; you know what you're seeing is beautiful and to be treasured, you just hope that you don't have to explain why after the fact.
The Illusionists have a good thing going here and it's easy to understand why it's been a success around the world. There's still an audience for magic out there, even if that audience isn't aware of it themselves. If magic is something you're in to, maybe even something that you miss, be happy that someone is willing to take a chance like The Illusionists. And you don't even have to fly anywhere to see it.
The Illusionists continues through June 6. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts, 615 Louisiana. For information, call 713-227-4772 or visit spahouston.org. $23 to $78.