Stage Door Review

Champions of Magic

Saturday, December 22, 2018

✭✭

produced by Alex Jarrett, directed by David Lynch

Starvox Entertainment, Bluma Appel Theatre, Toronto

December 20, 2018-January 6, 2019;

Touring North America October 16, 2019, until April 30, 2020 – see below

Alex McAleer: “What do you think I am – a mindreader?”

Toronto has a wide range of family entertainment options for this holiday season from traditional musicals and plays to pantos and circus.  Now a new option has entered the field with Champions of Magic.  Champions is not to be confused with The Illusionists — Live From Broadwaya magic revue of Australian origin which played Toronto at the end of 2016.  Rather Champions premiered in the UK in 2013, had a run in London’s West End and has toured ever since.  This is its first visit to Toronto and lovers of magic won’t want to miss it.  The show’s five magicians impress with everything from small-scale magic to to grand illusions, but what makes the evening so enjoyable is its pervasive good humour and lack of pretence.

Both Champions and The Illusionists are magic revues, but they have important differences.  Champions features only five of “the world’s finest magicians”, whereas The Illusionists featured seven.  In the latter several magicians appeared only for one set making the experience much more diffuse.  In Champions all five appear several times lending the show more cohesion.  The Illusionists played in the 2000-seat Princess of Wales Theatre, whereas Champions plays in the 868-seat Bluma Appel Theatre, and magic always has more impact in a smaller venue.  The biggest flaw in The Illusionists, one related to the venue size, was that everything in the show was projected onto a 10-by-30 foot LED monitor over the stage, so one felt more like one was watching television than live magic.  Champions also uses an above-stage monitor but only to project historical images related to an act or the small-scale magic of one of the magicians.  Otherwise, it serves merely as an ornamental backdrop.

While Champions claims it has five of “the world’s finest magicians”, it really is made up of only four acts since the duo of Young & Strange make up one act.  They also share hosting duties with fellow British mentalist Alex McAleer.  The other two performers are Mexican escapologist Fernando Velasco and American close-up magician Kayla Drescher.  For first-time theatre-goers they present an excellent overview of the various disciplines that come under the heading of stage magic.  For magic aficionados they all provide intriguing twists on familiar tricks and illusions. 

First up are Young & Strange (i.e., Sam Strange, tall and slim, and Richard Young, shorter and not so slim), childhood friends, who keep up a humorous rivalry about which of them is the real “champion of magic”.  They set the tone of comic self-promotion and self-deprecation that characterizes the whole evening.  They begin by performing a great variation on the traditional Sword Cabinet trick.  Instead of a purpose-built, decorated box with distinct holes in it for the swords to penetrate, Young & Strange use an ordinary cardboard box that Strange folds into a box while we watch.  When Young gets in the box he seems to fill it, unlike the sylph-like assistants usually used.  Since there are no pre-made holes, Strange takes an unusually large number canes with pointed ends and thrusts them through one side of the box and out the other so that it it seems impossible that Young could escape harm.  Yet, somehow he does.

The most earnest of the five magicians is Fernando Velasco.  For his three main illusions he levitates a volunteer from the audience, and recreates Houdini’s upside-down straitjacket escape and Houdini’s Water Torture Cell escape.  Velasco gives both of the Houdini tricks a variation.  In the straitjacket escape, the dangling Velasco is threatened by the “Jaws of Death, two spike-filled jaws held open by a rope that is set alight giving Velasco only one minute to free himself or be skewered from both sides.  I won’t reveal the variation on the other Houdini escape since it s such a surprise.

While the vital, young Velasco is excellent in both, it is really his performance of the levitation that will leave you totally baffled.  In Velasco’s version of the Chair Suspension, Velasco sets up the two folding chairs and solid wooden board in a totally natural and seemingly haphazard a fashion, with no fussing about how the board sits on top of the two chairs.  He chooses a young volunteer for the audience, as tall as the board, and has the person lie on a serape thrown over the board.  When he removes the first chair, the trick looks like the one we’ve seen so many times before.  When he removes the second chair, it takes a minute for us to realize that what we’re seeing is impossible.  Never have I seen this illusion done so effectively.

Dapperly dressed Alex McAleer is a mentalist whose performance is immeasurably enhanced by his very dry wit.  The way he intuits the name a volunteer is thinking of and their relation to the volunteer defies explanation.  His routine of guessing the name of a celebrity, a place and a favourite movie that someone is contemplating is stunningly performed although his overemphasis via props in celebrating his correct choice of movie may hand a key clue to those intent on solving how he does the stunt.

For many people it’s likely that the most effective of the magicians will be the least assuming –  Kayla Drescher, the close-up magician.  Her effects are so small scale that she has a cameraman shoot live video of her which is projected onto the small screen above the stage.  She too is blessed with a fine sense of humour that makes her interactions with audience members warm, friendly and unintimidating.  As so often in magic, the simplest tricks are the most baffling.  With a child volunteer you watch closely as one rubber band stretched between Drescher’s finger and thumb somehow passes through another stretched between two fingers of the child.  On stage, Drescher does a wonderfully imaginative and more complex variation of the Torn and Restored Paper Illusion.  Drescher will, however, be best remembered for a card trick that she endeavours to perform several times with the same audience volunteer that lends a sense of unity to the whole evening.  The card trick itself is one I’ve never seen before and therefore won’t describe.  Its fantastic double-whammy solution will leave everyone dumbfounded.

Comedy is a major part of Young & Strange’s act so that when Young gets to be the one performing the trick and Strange the victim, it feels as if Young is taking comic revenge of Strange for all his self-aggrandizing remarks.  The two admit that their greatest love in magic are the grand illusions one tends to see at magic shows in Las Vegas.  Given, as they say, that Las Vegas seems permanently stuck in 1989, the two change from their smart dress into glittery, over-the-top, rock-star-like one-piece outfits with rigid epaulettes shooting out from each shoulder.  

To the music of the hair metal rock of the 1980s, the duo perform in rapid succession a series of standard large-scale illusions including cutting the stereotypical “lovely assistant”, aerialist Annalisa Midolo, in half with a buzzsaw; performing an extreme version of the Zig Zag Girl with a two-part box that slides diagonally in half; and staging a spectacular multiple penetration of a male assistant with a square cluster of flaming torches.  What makes their performance of these illusions so different is how quickly they accomplish each one and move on to the next and how they mock so well the deadly seriousness that famed illusionists adopt while still bringing off each of their own illusions so effectively.

Director David Lynch has paced the show perfectly.  Often he places Alex McAleer right after Fernando Velasco to give us a complete change from a physical challenge to a mental challenge and a way to calm down from the high intensity of Velasco’s stunts with the more low-key level of McAleer’s.  Lighting designers Gareth Risdale and Will Blair admirably suit the style of lighting to the style of magic with soft spotlights on Drescher and blinding rock-concert lighting and pyrotechnics for Young & Strange’s Las Vegas tribute.  Sound designer Charles Gund does keep the sound level rather high throughout, but luckily the show website specifically states that the show is not recommended for children under 5 due to the volume of the sound.

Champions of Magic is an exhilarating show whose humour and lack of pretence are its greatest virtues, along, of course, with the expert performances of its five magicians.  Since the show covers the whole range of magic from small scale to large, it makes a great introduction to any newcomers to the wide variety that the term “stage magic” includes.  

It’s fascinating that at a time when we all spend so much time in the cold, digital world, that live magic should be undergoing such a renaissance.  It would seem that people long to have a more direct and immediate experience of the marvellous than high tech can provide.  Thus Champions of Magic arrives at the perfect time.  It’s a lively show that will fill both young and old with an authentic sense of wonder.        

©Christopher Hoile

Tour stops after Toronto, ON:

• Stranahan Theater, Toledo OH

October 16, 2019;

• Hatfield Hall, Terre Haute, IN

October 17, 2019;

• WVU Creative Arts Center, Morgantown, WV

October 18, 2019;

• Embassey Theatre, Fort Wayne, IN

October 19, 2019;

• Morris PAC, South Bend, IN

October 20, 2019;

• Orpheum Theatre, Sioux City, IA

October 24, 2019;

• Adler Theatre, Davenport, IA

October 26, 2019;

• Paramount Theatre, Cedar Rapids, IA

October 27, 2019;

• Civic Center, Cheyenne, WY

November 9, 2019;

• Jeanné Wagner Theatre, Salt Lake City, UT

November 10-12, 2019;

• Orpheum Theatre, phoenix, AZ

November 15-16, 2019;

• Fox Theatre, Tucson, AZ

November 17, 2019;

• Segerstrom Center, Costa Mesa, CA

November 23, 2019;

• Sycuan Casino, El Cajon, CA

November 24, 2019;

• Golden Gate Theatre, San Francisco, CA

November 25-December 1, 2019;

• Golden State Theatre, Monterey, CA

December 2, 2019;

• Keystone Centre, Brandon MB

December 8, 2019;

• Arena at TD Place, Ottawa, ON

December 12, 2019;

• Tribute Communities Centre, Oshawa

December 14, 2019;

• Place Bell, Laval, QC

December 15, 2019

• The Oncenter, Syracuse, NY

January 10, 2020;

• SaskTel centre, Saskatoon, SK

January 16, 2020;

• Conexus Arts Centre, Regina, SK

January 17, 2020;

• CN Centre, Prince George, BC

January 26, 2020;

• Fargo Theatre, Fargo, ND

January 29, 2020;

• Capitol Theatre, madison, WI

January 30, 2020;

• Santander PAC, Reading, PA

February 1, 2020;

• Union County PAC, Rahway, NJ

February 2, 2020;

• Foxwoods Resort casino, Mashantucket, CT

February 21, 2020;

• Casino Rama, Rama, ON

February 29, 2020;

• Kauffman Centre, Kansas City, MO

April 3, 3030

• Paramount Theatre, Rutland, VT

April 30, 2020

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.  

Photos: (from top) Young &Strange with assistant; Fernando Velasco; Sam Strange, Fernando Velasco, Kayla Drescher, Alex McAleer and Richard Young. ©Pamela Raith Photography.

For tickets, visit www.championsofmagic.co.uk.