When “The Illusionists — Witness the Impossible” opens at the Academy of Music Feb. 24 for its six-day run, a glittering show of daring magic from its team of seven distinctly unique personalities (guys with nicknames like “The Manipulator,” “The Anti-Conjuror” and “The Escapologist”) will do for legerdemain what Cirque du Soleil did for twirling, spinning and clowning in mid-air while speaking French.
That’s exactly how U.K. producer/conceptualist Simon Painter imagined things (without the language barrier) when he went from playing classical violin to devising a bright and booming lights-action event with all the snazz and pageantry of a Super Bowl halftime program. When Painter talks of “Illusionists’” action bits, such as “The Water Torture Cell” performed by Andrew Basso, he details a very telling piece of the story that makes his traveling showcase spectacular, gripping and gutsy.
“It’s not an illusion,” Painter said. “It’s real, it’s dangerous and it’s an amazing piece of theater.”
Fifteen years after putting aside the violin for the life of a productive impresario — “I am still very much involved with every side of the creative process, including the score, so I get my musical fix there,” Painter noted — his idea of grand, glossy, daredevil-ish Euro-theater spectacle is about entertainment before-and-above-all, and that it entertains the widest demographic.
“I think it’s hard to produce something that can be viewed simultaneously by a 5-year-old kid, a 95-year-old grandfather, gothic teenagers, married couples and everyone in between,” he said.
Why magic tricks as opposed to clown shoes comes down to one crucial element for Painter: He wants to see things that make him go “wow.” That means, during “The Illusionists’ 1903” (his next magic show), old-school notions of legerdemain and the crafts of Houdini are re-created and that during “Witness the Impossible,” his seven-man army must work hard to amaze the Internet seekers or the debunkers peeking behind the curtain.
“I actually think that’s good for magic, those people,” Painter said. “Our performers have to develop new concepts and invent new illusions.”
It’s all well and good to discuss such majestic magic in theory, but what of its practice and those who go beyond pulling rabbits out of hats to amaze: “The Escapologist” Basso, Italy’s star escape artist; “The Inventor” Kevin James, a comedian and collector of the strange and unusual; “The Warrior” Aaron Crow, who specializes in weapon magic; and “The Trickster” Jeff Hobson, whom Painter considers the epitome of glamour and showmanship.
It wasn’t just good looks and good tricks that got Hobson from Michigan to Las Vegas and the people behind “The Illusionists.”
“It was good luck,” he yells, about how a video of his magic act ended up in a Las Vegas producer’s hands while Hobson was still in his Dearborn home. “The rest is history.”
Back in Dearborn, Hobson was led to the world of the stagey unknown when he saw a police officer perform magic with a safety message in his grade school.
“He performed a trick where a handkerchief would disappear and reappear between two other handkerchiefs that were tied together with a knot,” Hobson said. “I was amazed and told my classmates, ‘I’m going to do that when I grow up.’ I was almost right: I never grew up.”
Ask him if the word “trick” is insulting to an illusionist, or if there are subtle (or not-so-subtle) differences between “magic” and “illusion,” and Hobson states that “trick” is a more casual term for magic, but that the word smacks of a more amateur take or a scam.
“While we accept the term, we prefer ‘magic,’” he said. “‘Illusion’ is the term used for a more grand-sized magic like floating someone or sawing someone in two. ‘The Trickster’ is an appropriate name for my character, but you’ll have to see the show to understand why. It’s all in the suspense.”
When ask if he’s been forever fascinated with the encyclopedia of illusion and its greats and legends, Hobson posited that any good magician needs to know the basics of all magic, going back to the 1500s.
“Our show actually encompasses all of the aspects of magic, which is one of the reasons it’s a successful one. Our Escapologist, Andrew Basso, toys with Houdini’s legend, and excels beyond all of Houdini’s accomplishments,” he said.
Still, “The Illusionists” isn’t just poof, pow and alakazam. There are a lot of intricately designed, perfectly timed, slickly spectacular elements to every easy, breezy, flashy moment of the show.
“To be successful for today’s audiences, you have to have an ‘edge,’” said Hobson, pointing out that the team’s “Anti-Conjurer” Dan Sperry takes care of that department with plenty of firey shock magic.
Though Hobson, like Painter, doesn’t believe that Internet naysayers have any hurtful effect on magic’s working professionals (“On the contrary, I think all of the exposure has done a great service to performing magicians,” he said), he does believe you have to wake up bright and early to razzle-dazzle, and to make the crowds understand and become part of every illusion.
“To make magic really amazing, you gotta make the audience experience it as closely as possible,” he said.
To that end, Hobson’s work is a trial-and-error sense of elevation with many private performances in front of a mirror.
“That’s my recipe, and it takes me about two years for a trick to go from an idea to stage with music — if any — and dialogue,” he said.
You have to work at it, because more so than ever, there’s always a guy with a bigger bunny to behold, he noted.
“Magicians are rogues by nature. We put on one-man shows coupled with private performances mostly. Our producer, Simon Painter, decided one day to have the biggest and best magic show ever. He called and we answered.”
While Hobson pointed out that one of his favorite moments of “The Illusionists” is when James changes the climate of the theater dramatically, I wanted to know if the team had groupies.
“Oh yes, we do!” he enthused. “Our groupies cover a wide demographic. That’s part of our success.”
“The Illusionists” runs Feb. 24-March 1 at the Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad St. For tickets, visit kimmelcenter.org.