From a certain perspective, every performer who steps on a stage can be seen as an illusionist, someone who temporarily trades the actuality of “is’’ for the masquerade of “seems.’’
The audience’s job within that equation is usually to suspend disbelief. In “The Illusionists: Live from Broadway,’’ however, the goal of the performers is to induce disbelief, to do things that we see but still can’t believe we saw.
The show, which is at the Boston Opera House through Sunday, pulls that off with reasonable frequency. “The Illusionists’’ abounds in high-level “How did they do that?” technical proficiency as seven performers execute magic tricks and daring stunts. But what’s missing is that other kind of magic.
You know, the sort of communal magic that occurs when a real connection is forged with an audience and a performance seems to burst spontaneously to life in the moment, as if for the very first time, no matter how many times it’s been done before. That sort of electricity was in the air last summer at ArtsEmerson’s “Cuisine & Confessions’’ (to cite just one example), an exuberant exploration of our complicated relationship to food by the Montreal-based circus troupe Les 7 doigts de la main.
By contrast, “The Illusionists’’ has the slightly mechanical feel of a touring production that is checking off just one more stop on the road.
Directed by Neil Dorward, who is also listed as a creative producer, the show is haltingly paced, lacking a sense of cohesion and forward motion. “The Illusionists’’ is heavily dependent on audience participation — the performers constantly pull spectators onto the stage to take part in this or that routine — but a whiff of disdain for the crowd can periodically be discerned. Although the word “Broadway’’ is in the title (and it’s being presented here by Broadway In Boston), the ethos and performance styles of “The Illusionists’’ seem more strongly rooted in Las Vegas.
That impression is cemented by everything from the percussion-heavy, eardrum-shredding music (by composer Evan Jolly) that is designed to whip up drama to the retro shtick of Jeff Hobson, a.k.a. “The Trickster,’’ who functions as both performer and emcee. Hobson, whose playbill bio says he’s long been known as “the host of Las Vegas,’’ delivers gratuitous jabs at the city of Chelsea — apparently the evening’s designated punching bag — with irritating regularity.
I can’t fault the show’s use of an oversized screen, positioned above center stage, because it allows spectators in more distant seats to follow card tricks and other routines that benefit from a close-up view. It also says something about the confidence the performers have in their skills that they’re willing to subject their work to all those inquisitive eyes, hoping to decipher the trick. But the screen underscores the discrepancy between big, stage-filling routines and narrow-focus bits that lends a choppy quality to “The Illusionists.’’
There are moments in “The Illusionists’’ when the audience holds its collective breath, such as when Jonathan Goodwin, “The Daredevil,’’ performs remarkable feats of marksmanship with a crossbow that involve flowers, a newspaper, and very brave humans. Andrew Basso, “The Escapologist,’’ undertakes a Houdini-inspired stunt that requires him to escape from a tank of water while upside down, handcuffed, with his feet padlocked.
But the in-your-face bits by a glowering and growling Dan Sperry, the “Anti-Conjuror,’’ who specializes in “shock illusion,’’ are more grating than entertaining. There’s an old-school charm to the bits by Kevin James, “The Inventor,’’ and it’s hard not to be impressed by the rapid-fire card tricks of An Ha Lim, “The Manipulator,’’ but they fall short of captivating.
Ultimately, it is the Scottish-accented Colin Cloud, a.k.a. “The Deductionist,’’ who makes the strongest impression with his uncanny ability to deduce facts about audience members, from their occupations to their birth dates to their mothers’ maiden names. When he returns later in the show, Cloud pulls off another bit of wizardry, and this one boggles the mind. If only “The Illusionists’’’ staked more of a claim on the heart.
THE ILLUSIONISTS: LIVE FROM BROADWAY
Directed by Neil Dorward. Presented by Broadway In Boston. At Boston Opera House, through April 9. Tickets start at $44, 800-982-2787, www.BroadwayInBoston.com
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