Dallas — As I sat in the Music Hall at Fair Park on Wednesday immersed in the latest dazzling spectacle presented by Dallas Summer Musicals, the opening line of Christopher Nolan’s 2006 illusion-based film The Prestige rattled through my brain.
“Are you watching closely?”
Seven of the world’s top performers in the magic arts converge for The Illusionists: Witness the Impossible. And impossible it is. Death-defying stunts and escapes, card manipulation, and various other acts designed to fool human perception keep audience members glued to every move of the seven stars and their assistants. The extravaganza includes a live band, which provides an enchanting and varied soundtrack ranging from rock to techno to orchestral. Dancing even appears to hype up the acts even more, and cameramen follow the performers, so that those sitting further back in the auditorium can still have an up-close view.
The magic, however, is not just in the illusions themselves, but in the presentation. After all, the eye cannot be tricked unless there is one to guide it. Seven gentlemen each with his own specialty trade stage time with monologues, vignettes, and of course, the trick itself. Audience participation is key to the show, and people on both sides of the proscenium keep the energy and laughter up throughout the evening.
Adam Trent, “The Futurist,” is a charismatic young lad who infuses technology into his performances. He can do the usual card tricks and disappearing/reappearing, but his most incredible act involves the use of projections, which turn into real objects seemingly out of thin air.
“The Inventor” (Kevin James) brings the child out in everyone. Playing the role of the mad scientist who saws people in half yet can mysteriously put them back together, he’s also the grandfatherly wizard type who levitates a paper flower in front of a mystified little girl then turns in into a rose just for her.
Two performers wow the audience with incredible stunts rather than actual illusions. Italy’s Andrew Basso, “The Escapologist” bravely recreates Harry Houdini’s thrilling water escape, only this time in full view of the audience. “The Warrior” (Aaron Crow) is one of the more captivating performers, yet sadly this Belgian TV star with a chiseled, mesmerizing face only has one act. Without speaking a word, he executes a heart-pounding William Tell-style bow and arrow trick (with a laser for a modern touch), as a married couple from the audience sit motionless at the mercy of his aim.
Jeff Hobson as “The Trickster” emcees for the evening and interacts most with the audience. A true Vegas-style showman with a flair for the flamboyant and exhibiting characteristics of silent film comedians, he keeps the audience in stitches as he performs his own disappearing/reappearing illusions. He also gets the award for “Best Dressed Performer.” Way to rock that glitter, Trickster!
“The Anti-Conjuror” is perhaps the most puzzling. Dan Sperry specializes in shock illusions leaning on the macabre, and his appearance contributes a great deal. Gothic-style makeup, black stringy hair, and a plethora of tattoos combine with awkward postures and body positions (which seriously look like Bob Fosse meets goth) presenting a somewhat grotesque character. Fast, articulate speech adds a touch of drug-induced but calculated madness. The whole package is quite overdone yet utterly captivating.
His first act uses dental floss to pull at his skin while Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” plays dreamily, and his second displays a hilarious take on pulling a rabbit out of a hat (think skeet shooting), leading up to a game of Russian roulette with an unsuspecting patron. Susan, a sweet and spunky attorney in a red jacket, provides such an uproarious contrast to Sperry that one would almost think the choice was staged.
The Best Performer award of the evening hands down (or up, so you know there’s nothing up the sleeve) goes to the young rising star from South Korea, Yu Ho-Jin, “The Manipulator.” Looking like he came out of a K-Pop boy band yet displaying a grace and elegance that belies his age, his manipulation of cards is nothing short of astounding. His hands dance through the air as his piercing gaze keeps one in a trance. The illusions themselves are fantastic but the duration and complexity of the act is even more unbelievable. Hint: don’t jet at the bows. Stay for the curtain call. You won’t regret it.
The evening is quite a brain-bender, as many in the audience peer carefully at the stage (or screen) waiting to find the “aha!” moment, the secret to the illusion. Possible scenarios of how they defy physics run through the mind, trying to come up with some explanation.
But, as The Prestige also points out, do you really want to know? Or does everyone, from the most hard-lined pragmatist to the most imaginative child, want to be fooled?