After a sold-out run in 2014, the magical men of The Illusionists are back on Broadway. For its second holiday season engagement — this time at the Neil Simon Theatre as opposed to the massive Marquis — the production has brought in three new death-defiers to shake things up. The result is a better, tighter evening, with a lot more thrills.
The Illusionists, directed by Neil Dorward, is a variety show in the America's Got Talent mold, with seven performers who are showmen and experts in their respective fields. Having learned what worked last year and what didn't, the four returning illusionists perform similar but different material, so audience members who come back won't feel that they've seen it all before.
The beauty of the show, presented in two acts, is that so many of the tricks are old-fashioned sleight of hand. Thankfully, the slightly smaller size of the Neil Simon Theatre makes for a much more intimate evening, which works in the show's favor. This definitely proves to be an advantage for performers like Yu Ho-Jin, the Manipulator. He continues to boggle minds with his close-up card manipulation tricks, which earned him the Academy of Magical Arts' 2014 Magician of the Year title.
The size of the theater also benefits Dan Sperry, the Anti-Conjuror, who dresses like a cross between Marilyn Manson and Brandon Lee in The Crow. He once again performs his visually stunning bird routine, making doves appear and disappear into a vanishing birdcage, only to turn them into a cockatoo. Also returning for this new engagement are futurist Adam Trent, who continues to show-off the latest and best in LED screen technology, and flamboyant emcee Jeff Hobson, whose sparkly suits and sidesplitting routines leave spectators gasping for air in between laughs.
The major highlights in Illusionists 2.0 come from the new additions to the company. James More, the Deceptionist, opens the production with a jaw-dropping effect where a spike appears to slice through his stomach. Later, he locks himself in a chamber and contorts his body in truly mind-boggling ways. British-born stunt performer Jonathan Goodwin (the Daredevil) closes the first act by getting doused in lighter fluid, setting himself on fire, and then escaping, Houdini-style, from a locked straightjacket. He tops this hair-raising and terrifying exploit by catching, in midair, the quarrel of a crossbow aimed directly at his jugular.
On the lighter side, Australian Unusualist Raymond Crowe charms the audience with his skills as both a ventriloquist and a master of shadow puppetry. The show's eleven-o'clock number is his dazzling signature piece, The Shadows, in which he brings Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" to life using only his hands, a light bulb, and a curtain. It's a masterful cap to a consummately accomplished evening, one that will leave children wide-eyed and adults scratching their heads, thinking, "How'd they do that?"