Professional magicians tend to begin practicing their craft as kids, but Paul Dabek was extra-precocious, imitating the magicians he saw on TV when he was just three years old. “I would grab a wrap off the back of the couch, tie it around my neck like a cape, and try to make a ball disappear under a cup,” he recalls with a laugh. “My mom and grandmother would have to sit there and applaud, no matter how terrible the magic was.” All that preschool prestidigitation paid off, because Dabek grew up to become an award-winning magician now headed for his Broadway debut in The Illusionists: Magic of the Holidays. The international hit spectacular begins a six-week engagement at the Neil Simon Theatre on November 29.
Billed as “The Trickster,” Dabek combines sleight-of-hand with comic patter and audience interaction. His charming demeanor is one part old-school Rat Pack, one part Alan Cumming-style cheekiness. “You’re not far off with the Alan Cumming reference because I’m kind of like the Emcee of The Illusionists,” he says. “I’m the host of the evening, introducing some of the other acts and doing comedy magic.”
Dabek compares the seven-person cast of The Illusionists to the Marvel Comics universe or the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. “It’s like a superhero lineup of magicians,” he says, “each specializing in a different genre. Every style of magic is represented, with incredible production values, amazing lighting — all the bells and whistles.”
Growing up in Shropshire, “a very idyllic county in the English countryside,” Dabek enlisted friends and family to help perfect his act. “I sawed girlfriends in half, made doves disappear, put spears through my sister, you name it,” he recalls, “but finally I realized if I just mixed comedy with magic, I’d have a really strong cocktail. As a magician, your personality sets you apart, and this was the thing I could do better than anyone else.” By the time Dabek finished secondary school at age 16, he was already juggling multiple weekend gigs on the way to being named Young Magician of the Year by the Magic Circle.
In addition to hosting and performing magic, Dabek delights audiences at The Illusionists with a shadow puppetry segment. “It’s not necessarily magic, but it feels incredibly magical,” he says of creating animals of all shapes and sizes behind a white screen using only his hands. “This kind of storytelling is as old as man, and it’s been a big part of my act for most of my life.”
At a time of internet-driven information overload, The Illusionists allows theatergoers to sit back and feel amazed. “There’s very little wonder left in how anything is done,” Dabek observes, “but magic transcends that because it is still a secretive art form. The excitement that comes from seeing something you can’t explain is universal; there’s a thirst to experience that feeling of wonder.” Best of all, the show — and Dabek’s witty banter — appeals to all ages. “You can bring a date, you can come with friends, you can bring your parents and grandparents,” he says. “It’s a family-friendly show, but not a kids’ show; there really isn’t a lot of entertainment out there like this.”
After savoring his Broadway debut, Dabek will head to Los Angeles, where he moved a year ago to pursue opportunities not only in magic but also comedy, acting, and TV hosting. “Home will always be Shropshire, but I love working in America,” he says. “In my 17 years as a professional magician, I’ve visited 82 countries across six continents, so wherever I lay my hat is home.”
For the holidays, “home” will be New York’s theater district, and Dabek promises that The Illusionists will generate plenty of happy memories for everyone who sees it. “People can expect to be moved, to see amazing illusions, and to laugh more they might have expected,” he says. “The show is pure escapism and tremendous fun.”
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