Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - December 4, 2016
The Illusionists: Turn of the Century Dana Daniels: The Charlatan, Charlie Frye: The Eccentric, Jonathan Goodwin: The Daredevil, Mark Kalin: The Showman, Jinger Leigh: The Conjuress, Justo Thaus: The Grand Carlini, Rick Thomas: The Immortal, Thommy Ten & Amelie Van Tass: The Clairvoyants. Lighting Designer Paul Smith. Costume Designer Angela Aaron. Scenic Designer Todd Ivins. Sound Designer Shannon Slaton. Production Stage Manager Mark Dobrow. Composer Evan Jolly. Creative Director Mark Kalin. NICE Studios Graphic & Video Design. Writer, Historical and Magic Consultant Mike Caveney. Associate Director Jenn Rapp. Executive Producers Tim Lawson, Andrew Spencer. Director/Creative Producer - Neil Dorward. Executive/Creative Producer - Simon Painter.
There is no shortage of captivating magic to be found in The Illusionists: Turn of the Century, which just opened at the Palace. A ball floats in midair, from the stage floor almost to the wings. Women are variously disintegrated in the depths of a box with no side walls, sawed in half, or levitated. A watch is taken off a wrist and appears inside a locked box some 40 feet away. A letter typed at the beginning of the second act predicts the number of jelly beans a completely random audience member will count out during completely random conditions. But because if you're an aficionado of this sort of thing, or even if you just go to the theatre enough you've seen most of this in other shows, it's not these accomplishments that make the evening such a kick.
It is, rather, the people who bring them about. Not that that's unusual for The Illusionists (which has appeared on Broadway in a different form, and with different stars, the last two winters) or the "industry" in general, where the end goal has never mattered as much as the journey, and the practitioners who have always been the most successful are those who make getting there considerably more than half the fun. That's true in this outing to such an astonishing degree that it's the first such event I've seen where the majority of the tricksters are more interesting than their tricks.
Take, for example, Dana Daniels. He's billed as "The Charlatan," and is the living, breathing conglomeration of every bad magician ever. His jokes implode roughly every 50 milliseconds. He can't make an interesting balloon animal (or at least a pop-resistant one) to save his life. He holds up a hand of cards to a parrot, and when his avian assistant picks the wrong one, he turns to us and says, as if we're too stupid to get it, "It's a bird!" This last bit, by the way, occurs approximately 40,000 times during the two-hour-15-minute show.
But the night I was there, it was funny every single time. Daniels has so intricately carved his persona of the mark-spotting, money-stealing dolt that it ends up casting a spell with greater potency than anything else in his repertoire. Watching Daniels, with a puffed face and bushy mustache that scream don't-trust-him-comedian, send up not only his entire craft but also his unwitting volunteers with his precisely calculated misfires might just be the funniest thing I've ever seen at a show like this. Considering that he sustains it not just for some 10 minutes in the first act, but for another 10 in the second, that's a remarkable achievement.
So, too, is the work of Justo Thaus, a master string-pullerliterally. He's at the controls of The Grand Carlini, a tiny marionette whose sad but sparkling visage hides a master's abilities. Maybe making a sphere jump a couple of feet or making miles of metallic ribbon shoot out of his hat isn't that impressive in the grand scheme of things, but it's impossible not to have your mind blown by the realization that is all happening via puppetry in full view of the audience. Thaus is truly capable of kindling these miniature wonders with just tiny movements of his fingers, all while imparting to The Grand Carlini a daffy, but entirely lovable, old-school personality that is every bit as defined as any magician's I've ever seen.
Charlie Frye ("The Eccentric") comes close, though, even though what he does is subtler and less traditionally amazing. Caffeinated and frantic, he bolts about the stage in the first act getting a series of steel rings linked up with everything in sight (each other, himself, a hacksaw, a chair), and in Act II he juggles an increasingly crazy arrangement of objects including his clothes, when then fall onto him in the correct arrangement after they're tossed up high. His gags are totally wordless, and all he has for help is an assistant who doesn't seem to like him very much; that woman, Frye's wife, Sherry, is herself a natural stage star, practically stealing her husband's limelight with her annoyed and exasperated takes on his ever-more-ridiculous antics.
Somewhat more conventional are "The Daredevil" Jonathan Goodwin, who lies on a nail while an audience volunteer uses a sledgehammer to split a concrete block on his abdomen and later escapes from handcuffs while hanging from a flaming rope over a pit of spikes; Rick Thomas ("The Immortal"), who's in charge of the disappearing acts; Mark Kalin and Jinger Leigh ("The Showman" and "The Conjuress") who, alone or together, handle other classic chores like sleight of hand and teleportation. But they're all distinctive, in what they say and what they don't, and succeed at populating an eye-popping side show that has somehow gone legit.
That's the conceit of all this, in case you couldn't tell by the subtitle. We've been shuttled to the year 1903, when magic was beginning to go mainstream, but there were still plenty of surprises to unlock. The script, really just thin connective tissue, by Mike Caveney, and direction (by Neil Dorward) try to craft a less wise, more open-minded New York. So, too, do the splashy vaudeville-stage set (by Todd Ivins), glittery lights (Paul Smith), mock-elegant costumes (Angela Aaron), and modern-ethereal music and sound (respectively by Evan Jolly and Shannon Slaton), which are roundly successful at making us believe we are, in fact, Somewhere Else.
This is true even in the weaker moments, which tend to involve Thommy Ten and Amelie Van Tass, aka "The Clairvoyants." Although fun enough, their shtick about guessing what card you're thinking of or, in the drawn-out Act I closer, guessing found objects through a blindfold, is pretty shopworn, and their "characters" are barely developed enough to make the familiar fun. (Their inconsistent grasp of English doesn't help.) But Ten and Tass do, however unintentionally, make you appreciate what every else gets so right in extending the sorcery out of the realm of the unknown and into a universe we all understand. With the right training, anyone can pull an autographed $20 bill from inside an unpeeled orange. But making you care about what leads up to the reveal, and laugh yourself silly along the way? That's the best kind of illusion of all.