Chris Cox looks like your friendly next-door neighbor, with boyishly messy hair, oversized eyeglasses, and a wardrobe of colorful suspenders. But don’t underestimate this self-described “big geek”: Cox is one of the most celebrated magicians in the world, and a headliner in the forthcoming six-week Broadway engagement of The Illusionists: Magic of the Holidays. Billed as “The Mentalist,” he will show off his astonishing mind-reading skills at the Neil Simon Theatre from November 29 to January 2, 2020.
Since its debut at Australia’s Sydney Opera House in 2012, The Illusionists has become an international hit, including record-breaking engagements on Broadway. The show, says Cox, “takes the heart of what makes magic exciting and creates something fresh and new and relevant. It’s all about that human connection and making impossible things seem possible.”
To be clear, Cox himself doesn’t claim to be clairvoyant. “I often say that I’m a mind reader who can’t read minds,” he says, speaking with Broadway Direct from London, where The Illusionists recently wrapped up a West End run. And yet Cox manages to amaze audience members by revealing detailed tidbits about their lives and personalities, from favorite foods and favorite bands to names and birthdays. His skill as a magician and impeccable comic timing have impressed celebrity fans including comedian Ricky Gervais, who calls the 35-year-old magician “brilliant; he’ll blow your mind.”
Cox began playing around with magic as a kid in Bristol, England, where he first took the stage at the Hippodrome at age 11 in the chorus of a musical. After studying psychology, he began using his powers of deduction as a magician, making his professional debut at 20 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. “The joy of magic is to create a world where you feel like a kid again,” he says. “My job is to make you laugh — and to question how the hell I know information about you that there is no way I should be able to know. I don’t work with big props and illusions; I work with people’s thoughts and emotions. There’s a gray area between something being a trick and being based in reality, but my goal is to make the show as entertaining as possible.”
The young star’s mischievous energy and embrace of silliness sets him apart from other mind-readers. “People often find mind-reading scary or a little bit sinister,” notes Cox, “but for me, it’s about creating excitement and fun, celebrating the human mind and what we can do with it. I never want an audience member to feel concerned about participating; I want them to have the most memorable experience possible. It’s always a pleasure to meet people after the show who loved taking part, and others who come up and say, ‘I wish you had picked me.’”
In addition to mind-reading, The Illusionists brings together the greatest practitioners of daredevil stunts, card manipulation, cutting-edge illusions, sleight-of-hand tricks, and teleportation. “I remember seeing the show as a young adult and thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be incredible to be part of this?’” Cox says. “It’s a phenomenal production, with huge screens, sets, and lighting. I sit at the side of the stage at most shows because it’s a so much fun to watch everyone else’s act. I find a place where I can see the audience’s faces light up with amazement.”
Cox has traveled the world with The Illusionists, including a three-month run in South Africa, three months in Reno, Nevada, and a sold-out run at Sydney Opera House. Meanwhile, he continues to appear solo on UK stages and in BBC specials and awards shows and assisted in creating magic and illusions for the West End production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. “I’m never happier than when I’m standing in a theater,” says Cox, who even got married on stage back home at the Bristol Hippodrome. Now he’s headed to Broadway for the holiday season with his wife, a psychologist who offers ideas for his act, their two-year-old daughter, and a newborn due in early November.
“As a child who grew up watching Home Alone 2, I can’t believe we’re going to be in New York over Christmas,” Cox says with typical enthusiasm. “I look forward to taking my daughter to see Santa and just enjoying being together as a family when I’m not working.” His Great White Way debut comes after years on the other side of the Broadway footlights. “My wife and I spent way too much money flying over to see Hamilton when it first opened,” he recalls with a laugh, “so playing Broadway is genuinely a dream come true.”
As his own family grows, Cox is especially happy to be part of a spectacular production that appeals to theatergoers of all ages. “I love the idea that there are kids out there who might be seeing their first Broadway show, and that we will be part of their holiday memories,” he says. “Some might even be inspired to end up on stage themselves.”
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