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1.5 out of 4 stars

Title
The Illusionists – Live from Broadway
Directed by
Neil Dorward
Actors
Jeff Hobson, Darcy Oake, Yo Ho-Jin, Colin Cloud, Kevin James, Dan Sperry, Andrew Basso
Venue
Princess of Wales Theatre
City
Toronto

As much hokum as hocus, The Illusionists – Live from Broadway pulled an appearing act at the Princess of Wales Theatre on Wednesday. Tricks were displayed, doves appeared out of thin air and minds were read curiously. But while a man was chainsawed in two, the show was too glitzy by half.

There's magic, and then there's magic; this Vegas-style, drama-deficient revue was unfortunately lacking in the latter.

It all began with lots of lights and blaring, momentous music. A large glass box was empty, and then it was not. The Illusionists (so named perhaps because "The Magnificent Seven" would be overstating the case) popped into view with much fanfare and a firework-fountain introduction. They had less-than-superhero monikers: the Manipulator, the Escapologist and so on.

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The show's first performer was Jeff Hobson, a campy emcee and magician who wore his clothes and Liberace appreciation well. His witty banter was excellent, either when scripted – did he have a good time on his date with a half-man, half-woman? "Well, yes and no" – or when ad-libbed. He called himself the Trickster, and while he may or may not have had cards up his sleeve, he absolutely had them in his mouth.

Next on deck was Dan Sperry, the so-called Anti-Conjurer. Presenting as a Marilyn Manson knockoff, this guy's unsettling act recalled the gruesome shenanigans of the Jim Rose Circus. He used dental floss in a way that 10 out of 10 dentists would disapprove of. Later he would come back to make a toonie appear to travel from this eye to his forearm, which was sliced open, to the horror of an audience member brought up on stage to witness the freak show close up.

The show, a sort of Cirque du Sorcery that previously created box-office magic on Broadway, is plagued by a lack of charisma. While the Trickster was a card and Scotland's Colin Cloud as the Deductionist was a zippy mentalist, some of the other performers exhibited much less magnetism. Sperry was fine while doing things silently with birds but was less than captivating with his mouth open. He spoke fast, the way creepy people often do.

Though Kevin (the Inventor) James did neat things with contraptions and cut-in-half bodies, he had no stage presence himself.

Most disappointing was Italy's Andrew Basso, who calls himself the Escapologist but whose appeal escapes me. Before being placed upside down and handcuffed inside a glass water tank, he asked the audience to hold its breath. Which, if nothing else, prevented us from yawning while he used a paper clip to pick locks and shackles to escape a watery death. What was the tension? The locks were pickable. He used a tool, like he told us he would. The applause was perfunctory when he emerged from the tank, all wet for sure. Somewhere Houdini rolled over in his grave – in a straitjacket, no less.

Appearing after the break was Canada's Darcy Oake. Aptly dubbed the Grand Illusionist, Oake operates at high flamboyance and velocity – a rock-star aesthetic he pulls off well.

Unfortunately, most of the other performers can't match Oake's flashy panache. Fortunately, the Korean card-trick maestro Yo Ho-Jin doesn't bother to try. The man goes for small. He wins with elegance, not bombast.

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In the lobby, many kids probably asked their parents to buy the beginner's magic kit on sale. If the overdone performance didn't teach them a lesson, perhaps the instructions in the manual did – the notion that bigger is better is just an illusion.

The Illusionists – Live from Broadway continues to Jan. 7 (mirvish.com)

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