There’s a scene in The Illusionists: Direct from Broadway where the show’s whole cast, dancers and assistants too, are ringed around one performer in the centre. He’s doing a card trick – one of the show’s several – on a simple table. The cast sit crosslegged, or stand leaning on each other’s shoulders: Mark Kalin, ‘The Showman’, perches on a skeletal set of bleachers, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, watching closely.
It’s a scene way back in the show’s second half, but it points to an exciting premise. A cohort of world-renowned magicians, showing off for each other, and coming together to put on a show. It may just be my taste, but the highlights of the show were moments of chemistry between cast members, namely Mark Kalin and ‘Conjuress’ Jinger Leigh. The two have wonderful, gentle chemistry, between Jinger’s graceful execution and Mark Kalin’s magician-historian nerd intensity. I found myself wishing they were the whole show.
But this is a variety show from start to finish, and you won’t see a lot of interaction between performers. The Illusionists has toured in over 350 cities, and it’s obviously a show built for an ever-changing cast, with acts paced to alternate the performers without too much repetition. But it seems to lack deliberate structure. You’d think the show would move from simpler to more daring tricks, sweet to dangerous-looking, small to large-scale. But the act most hyped in the show’s marketing happens in the first half, without an equivalent in the second. I can’t quite get my head around the pacing.
I do have a theory, however. In their program notes, producers Simon Painter and Tim Lawson detail their fight to legitimise magic in the eyes of the world, though noting its popularity in Las Vegas. It’s clear that the show wants to bust out of that mould. But The Illusionists reminds me of nothing so much as a Vegas casino. One where patrons are beguiled – by gaudy print carpets and chandeliers and the constant click of roulette wheels – into forgetting what day or time it is.
This effect may account for the crowd’s gasp when intermission was announced, as though they’d lost their concept of time. The show’s lighting shifts constantly, from house lights to pitch-dark to spotlights swept over the eyes of the audience. The stage holds a total of five screens, which appear and disappear throughout the show. Its acts zig-zag in speed and tone, from the kitsch-but-macho feats of Sam Powers to Paul Dabek’s stand-up magic, to Chris Cox’s mind-manipulation act, which deserves special mention: it’s utterly manic and a highlight, though it often feels as though it belongs in its own show. Angela Aaron’s costume design veers from futuristic to steampunk, to old-fashioned show-business, to the showgirls-in-Versace dancers, Vegas-like in their saucy enthusiasm. Could the show’s lack of cohesion be a tactic, one huge act of misdirection, designed to keep the audience bewildered?
There’s only one way for you to decide, and I’m left to decide myself: do I recommend this show? If you like magicians, it’s a no-brainer. I just happen to have lived a life untouched by magicians. If you’re looking to have a night out with some kids, perhaps yours, I’d recommend it: the audience was family-heavy, and the kids were delighted. And if you just love a little showbiz, it’s a fascinating case-study in razzle-dazzle.
The Illusionists: Direct From Broadway plays at QPAC from 9 to 19 January 2019. To book tickets head to www.qpac.com.au
Review by Rebecca Cheers