A hero shot of Spanish illusionist El Mago Pop (a.k.a. Antonio Díaz) looms over the marquee of Broadway’s Barrymore Theatre. The image is accompanied by the all-caps decree: “THE MOST SUCCESSFUL ILLUSIONIST THE CONTINENT OF EUROPE HAS EVER PRODUCED.”
The clunkily phrased superlatives continue inside the theater where an infomercial about Díaz’s international box office success, his (unverified) status as the youngest illusionist to perform a show on Broadway, and the time he left Stephen Hawking “speechless” serves as his opening act. It’s a suspiciously hard sell for a crowd that has already spent money on tickets. But as the show continues, you come to learn that the magic of Díaz is as much in his salesmanship as it is in his world-class illusions.
With youthful charm and the swagger of a Backstreet Boy, Díaz (supported by a team of precise assistants) runs through his best tricks, each buttoned with pyrotechnics and a punch to the air (director Mag Lari leans into an engrossing more-is-more aesthetic). Teleportation is his specialty, so we’re treated to every iteration of disappearing act — some he performs himself and others he unbelievably performs on unsuspecting audience members.
A visually impressive levitation sequence joins the latter half of the show, bolstering the superhero aura he spends the performance cultivating. He references Bruce Willis’s character in Unbreakable as his childhood inspiration, but the narrative he pitches us is much more Peter Parker: A small kid in a skinny tie who is living his childhood dream of making impossible things possible (Nothing Is Impossible is the name of his show). The audience is even served intermittent filmed dramatizations of his childhood in Barcelona: With starry eyes, his young self practices elementary tricks and ogles magicians like Cardini whose dexterous work with a billiard ball Díaz expertly replicates live.
This sugary rags-to-riches tale turns out to be the most difficult piece of Díaz’s show to believe. It’s a thin hero’s journey to begin with, and every time El Mago Pop tries to hawk his magic kit or boasts about his global dominance, the sympathetic underdog disappears. He repeatedly compares himself to a bumblebee — that miracle of nature that defies science by flying via the sheer power of belief.
Of course that bumblebee myth has been debunked and there is as much a science to its flight as there is to El Mago Pop’s success. He’s a skilled craftsman whose tricks walk the tenuous line between homages to his greatest inspirations (like his Cardini vignette) and cribbing from fellow practitioners (a trick he does with shadows left me completely gobsmacked but is a variation on a trick created by Teller). Clearly, he’s learned that it’s better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission. And with the skill to match his hype, Díaz’s unflinching confidence may be his most powerful illusion of all.