The Illusionists: Live on Broadway opens a holiday engagement on November 19 at the Neil Simon Theatre.
Many people associate the art of magic with the glitter of the Las Vegas Strip — think Lance Burton or Siegfried and Roy — but Broadway has provided a hospitable home for several generations of magicians, from Harry Houdini to Harry Blackstone and David Copperfield. The late Doug Henning was a bona fide musical star, appearing in Merlin and the long-run smash The Magic Show. Just this past summer, Penn and Teller enjoyed a highly successful Broadway run.
Each generation produces a new style of magician, from the top-hatted tricksters of yesteryear (with their lovely assistants) to the sleight-of-hand hipsters of today. A case in point is The Illusionists: Live on Broadway, which opens a holiday engagement on November 19 at the Neil Simon Theatre. It’s the return of a troupe that mixes classic prestidigitation techniques with contemporary performance styles and technologies.
Conceived as a kind of Justice League of America consisting of magic superheroes, the group includes Raymond Crowe (The Unusualist), whose act combines mime, ventriloquism, and shadow puppetry; Jonathan Goodwin (The Daredevil), billed as a “ knife thrower, archer, escape artist, fakir, martial artist, free diver, and free climber”; Jeff Hobson (The Trickster), whose boyish appearance conceals a world of fakery; James More (The Deceptionist), who wowed audiences on Britain’s Got Talent when he was seemingly impaled on a spike; Dan Sperry (The Anti-Conjuror), sometimes described as “Marilyn Manson meets David Copperfield”; and Yu Ho-Jin (The Manipulator), the first Asian to take the Grand Prix at the Fédération Internationale des Société sMagiques, a.k.a. the Olympics of Magic.
And then there’s Adam Trent, billed as The Futurist, who seemingly does it all, from card tricks to illusions like the stunning Split Personality, in which he appears to slice himself in half in full audience view — no bodies in a box for him — gleefully increasing the empty space between his waist and legs as the crowd gasps in astonishment. In another bit, the pajama-clad Trent, ready for a good night’s sleep, contends with a pillow that takes on a life of its own, enacting a semi-striptease before being transformed into a lovely, nightie-clad lady. Trent also does astonishing things with LED screens, smashing into a giant checkerboard image that breaks into a thousand little pieces and taking part in routines with multiple images of himself. Whatever your image of a magician is, Trent probably defies it: He’s a little bit musical theater, a little bit rock ’n’ roll, and a whole lot of comedy.
Magicians typically describe themselves in interviews as magic obsessives, working with decks of cards while in kindergarten. In contrast, Trent says that his background was more eclectic: “My first dream was to be a musician. I wanted to be a pop star, a Backstreet Boy. When I was 8, I saw David Copperfield and got my first magic kit. Then, when I was in college, I went to my first comedy club, and it was amazing — the whole room was laughing! So I started doing comedy, adding that to my act.”
Given his broad range of material and use of cutting-edge technologies, Trent says developing each new piece is a time-consuming process. “It’s usually a year, from the time I start thinking of it,” he notes. “I first did the thing with video screens in 2009, so it has been six years in the making. Every year, I try to revamp it.” He adds, laughing: “If I dug out the video of the first performance of it, it would be unwatchable! It’s just a very, very slow process.”
Amazingly, Trent handles all of the technology and design elements himself. “A lot of what I do is a do-it-yourself kind of thing,” he says. In the case of the LED screens, he adds, “I didn’t have the money to hire anyone, so I did all the animation myself. I still do a lot of my own Photoshop work and video editing. You become a jack-of-all-trades because you have to. You learn to be a director, producer, choreographer, and costume designer.”
Of course, when he teams up for a production like The Illusionists, he has to integrate his work into a much larger production, which means interfacing with the creative team, especially the lighting designer, who can play a make-or-break role in concealing the details of an illusion. “I say, ‘We can’t see this and we have to see that. This is the base that we can’t screw with. Now add some coolness to it!’”
Trent can’t say for sure which of his illusions will make the cut for Broadway this time out. “I’m really cranking out a lot of new material right now, and right before the opening we’ll see what fits best. It’s not necessarily about doing your best bit, because another guy might be doing something similar. No one really knows until we all get together, which will be very shortly, and we’ll start running things. The guys in the show are world-class. Raymond Crowe is joining us; I’ve watched video of him until I wore out my VHS tapes. But it’s an honor to perform with all six guys, who are at the top of their games.”
What with doing The Illusionists, touring with his own solo show, and cooking up new illusions, Trent notes that he has “zero” free time. “The last time I had off was two or three years ago. I keep telling myself I’m going to take a vacation as soon as this tour ends. Then the day comes and there’s the next greatest opportunity. These are all good problems to have; I wouldn’t trade it for anything.” Still, he adds, laughing, “I wake up every morning in a cold sweat, thinking, Oh, my God, I’m so far behind!”