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BWW Reviews: Spectacular Magic and Hilarious Comedy Brought to PPAC by THE ILLUSIONISTS

Heading to Providence Performing Arts Center the other night, I couldn't help but turn to my friend who accompanied me and say, "When was the last time you saw a magic show??" It seems that these days magic shows are less common than they were in our youth. Back in the day, you would often hear about and could witness live the likes of David Copperfield, Doug Henning, The Pendragons and others. Today, it seems, magic shows are relegated to kids' birthdays, college campuses and the Las Vegas Strip (wherefore art thou, Sigfried and Roy?).

On the other hand, The Illusionists, a touring show featuring seven different magicians and playing this weekend at PPAC, proves that magic shows are alive and well. And still extremely entertaining, although perhaps in slightly different ways. While magic shows of old seemed to be much more about the grand illusions and massive spectacle, The Illusionists keeps things at a much smaller scale. This may be due, largely or in small part, to the fact that it's a touring show. There's only so many props and set pieces you can fit in the back of a truck.

For the most part, the magic is kept small and simple, slight-of-hand type tricks, and there's nothing wrong with that. There's one big illusion towards the beginning where something large appears and one trick later that involves a sizeable set piece. The rest of the time, we get lots of card tricks, tricks with small birds, smaller pieces of paper and even smaller strings of dental floss. And make no mistake about it, some of the magic is spectacular. Not all of it, truth be told, but most of it. To be fair, every magic show is going to be a bit hit-or-miss, with some tricks that fall flat, and while there are a few clunkers here, they're the exception rather than the rule.

One thing that's unique about this show, there are seven different magicians performing on stage, rather than just one. Even better, they are completely different kinds of magicians, each with his own style and gimmick, if you will. And they take to the stage with varying degrees of stage presence and more widely varying amounts of time to work their magic.

Leading the way is Adam Trent, known as "The Futurist." Tent functions as a bit of an emcee or master of ceremonies, getting the show started with a hilarious bit involving a very willing audience member. It's the kind of trick that needs that kind of audience member, and this one was perfect. Trent appears throughout the show, both performing magic and interacting with more audience members, always with easygoing charm and likeability, as well as great comic timing. His sequence of magic tricks involving a large video screen is among the night's major highlights.

Coming in second in terms of stage-time is "The Trickster," Jeff Hobson. With a flamboyant flair, not dissimilar to Liberace, for example, Hobson keeps the audience laughing consistently with his snarky, sarcastic brand of humor. Combining the skill of a stand-up comic with the talents of a magician, he balances both and provides stunning magic and side-splitting laughs throughout the evening.

With seven different magicians, things are bound to get a little weird and bringing the most weird to this show is Dan Sperry, "The Anti-Conjuror." In the show's first half, Sperry only appears once, to perform a trick that's mostly gross and designed for shock value, one of the lowlights of Act One. But, Sperry redeems himself tenfold in the second half with two fantastic stage appearances. A bit involving an audience member is another one of the show's highlights, as Sperry keeps the audience in stiches with his crazy, manic brand of humor. Returning later with some feathered friends, he demonstrates a unique and spectacular skill at magic.

In this type of show, somebody is bound to get the least of the available stage time. In this case, it's Aaron Crow, known as "The Warrior." Crow appears alone on stage for only one solo trick, one that's excellent even though the end result is entirely predictable. With an interesting gimmick and entertaining personality, it would be nice to see Crow appear again and perform more feats of dangerous magic.

Getting a bit more stage time is Andrew Basso, "The Escapologist," who appears twice to perform two fantastic escapes. I don't think it's a spoiler to say that, the man is a professional escape artist, after all. And clearly a very talented one. The show's weakest link is "The Inventor," Kevin James. While his nickname sounds good, his tricks are actually never very inventive. They're mostly just slightly new ways to perform very old tricks, and on a couple of occasions they're telegraphed and highly predictable.

Finally, saving the best, in my opinion, for last, is Yu Ho-Jin, known as "The Manipulator." The biggest highlight of the show is his solo performance, just him standing alone on stage with a seemingly endless number of playing cards. I dare any audience member to try to explain where they all come from. His magic is elegant, simple and beautiful, with no need for spectacle and dramatics. Without making a big production out of it, as magicians often do, he demonstrates a unique brand of amazing magical talent and showmanship.

While the show as a whole is uneven, there are certainly lots of high points and plenty of reasons to see The Illusionists. The focus on comedy does make it seem a bit more like a comedy show that happens to include some magic, rather than a magic show where they tell jokes. But at least the comedy is top-notch and the laughs are genuine and frequent. There's also a rather extreme reliance on audience participation, so hopefully they get good, willing audience members at every performance. Still, it's a show that is bound to make older audience members recall great magicians of the past and make young audience members think about becoming one of the magicians of the future.

The Illusionsts is at Providence Performing Arts Center, at 220 Weybosset Street in downtown Providence, through January 18th. Tickets are $68 to $38 and are available at the PPAC Box Office, online at www.ppacri.org and by phone at 401-421-ARTS (2787). Box office hours are Monday through Friday, 10am to 5pm, Saturday, 10am to 2pm and at least two hours prior to curtain times.

Pictured: Yu Ho-Jin. Photo by Joan Marcus.


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From This Author Robert Barossi