The truly amazing thing about Criss Angel: Believe, the Cirque du Soleil-branded show at the Luxor in Las Vegas, is that it manages to fail in so many different ways at once. It fails as a magic show. It fails as a Cirque extravaganza. It fails as a comedy act. Just about the only thing it succeeds at is failure.
Prior to attending the show, I had almost no exposure to Criss Angel. I'd seen posters for his TV show, perhaps a commercial or two, but I'd never seen him perform. My impression was that he was kind of a Goth illusionist, a stage magician with eye shadow and attitude. If his Luxor show is any indication, what he is not is a showman. I have never seen a magic act with such poor staging, or one demonstrating less understanding of how to build suspense or create wonder.
There's an old scriptwriting rule in Hollywood: If you're going to fire a gun in act three, you have to show it to the audience in act one. Angel always jumped right to the third act. Giant medieval apparati wheeled onto the stage amidst fog and shadow, and before the audience could really take in all the moving parts and anticipate what was coming, strobes would flash and Angel would appear in the device's clutches. Without the setup, the effect fell completely flat.
The name of the show is Believe, but there was no effort to make the audience believe in any of his tricks. Magic is a really tough business these days. We're all used to seeing incredible effects in films and on TV. We know how easy it is to alter a photograph. Modern technology makes miracles of the past completely mundane. So for an illusion to work, for the audience to drop its collective jaw and gape in unfathomable wonder at the impossible, the magician has to sell it. I may not know how the trick is done, but I might think I know. Even if I'm wrong, there's no magic if I think I'm right. The magician has to anticipate how his audience will think the trick is done, then prove to them that it couldn't possibly be done that way. When a magician levitates someone, they usually pass a ring along the person's body to show there aren't any wires. When a magician produces a shower of cards, he shows there's nothing up his sleeve. Most of the time Angel failed to follow these basics.
Many of the big illusions happened at the rear of the stage, as far from the audience as possible. With the lighting, fog, and set, there was no clear view. Who knows how many black-clad assistants were lurking back there? Who knows how many trap doors were concealed? The best magic is done in the full light of day, so to speak, as close to the audience as possible. I'm going to think there's someone behind you unless you show me there isn't.
At one point, without any setup or preamble, he walked down the face of a vertical wall, then spread his arms and thrust out his chest dramatically, all but proclaiming, "Magic!". Anyone who's seen Cirque du Soleil is very familiar with this kind of wire work. If the intent was to present this as an illusion, you've got to get me to think no wires are involved. He didn't even try. If it's just a visual stunt, then don't try to milk applause from the audience as if you'd just parted the Red Sea.
I was a minor magic buff when I was younger. I performed some magic, even doing a couple of birthday parties once upon a time. I shopped at the famous Tannen's magic store in New York. I caught every televised magic special. My all-time favorite illusion is Houdini's Metamorphosis. You've seen it a bunch of times-- the magician's hands and feet are shackled, he's tied in a sack, the sack is put in locked box, an assistant climbs atop the box, and raises a curtain around the box and herself. "One..." she lowers the curtain and raises it back above her head. "Two..." She does it again. "Three, it's me!" Suddenly the curtain drops and it's the magician atop the box, with the assistant now shackled and bagged inside the box. Angel's version of this illusion was a disaster. He stressed that he would perform the fastest version ever, without hiding behind a curtain. But it wasn't the metamorphosis itself that was fast. He skipped a bunch of steps. He didn't show us the empty box first and try to convince us there were no trap doors. He didn't even shackle himself, or put himself in a bag-- he merely stepped into the box and had it closed and roped shut. In lieu of a curtain, he used a massive blast of fog and flashing strobe lights that both completely obscured the action and blinded the audience, so that we really couldn't see what was going on for at least 3 seconds. It was easily the worst Metamorphosis I've ever seen.
Apparently his TV show has run for five seasons, so he must do something right. But on the stage Criss Angel exhibited no charisma, charm, or rapport with the audience. His biggest trick was bringing 40-year-old patter back from the dead. He actually uttered lines like, "You've been a great audience," "You're one of the best audiences we've ever had," and "You're a good kid." He repeatedly addressed the audience as "folks". Who does that anymore? He talked at the audience rather than to them. When he brought a teenager up on stage, his script was awkward and inappropriate. I prayed for Jaye P. Morgan or Jamie Farr to dance on stage and put us out of our misery with a swift strike of a gong.
So much for the magic. What about the Cirque? The show began with about 10 minutes of horrible clown buffoonery. It seemed like the same schtick that preceded Ka, another Cirque show, when we saw it about three years ago. A couple of times during the show a bunch of costumed dancers in rabbit masks frolicked on stage in time with pseudo-creepy music. And really, that was about it. No acrobatics, no flying wire work, none of the signature Cirque du Soleil touches. Just bad theater.
I love magic. I appreciate the artistry and skill of Cirque du Soleil. The union of the two should have been a showstopper. Instead the show should have been stopped before it ever opened to the public. If you find yourself in Vegas, save your time and money.