Criss Angel: 'Believe'


The rest of us made fun of it, so why shouldn't Criss Angel?

Two years ago, Cirque du Soleil's costume shop for "Believe" proudly delivered creepy giant rabbits, some by way of the fetish store. Cirque also worked up a whole modern-dance piece expressing rabbit sorrow over the death of one of their own, killed in the line of magic-show duty.

Now they're dead, too. Gone with the (fake tornado) wind, the acrobats, dancers and most of the human involvement Cirque contributed to the original Luxor partnership with Angel.

But the props and costumes already were paid for, so one of the bunny suits still gets trotted out for Angel and his sidekicks to point at and crack jokes.

"It's a dude in a suit sweating his ass off," the illusionist says.

So much for the artsy-fartsy "Believe" that opened two years ago as a journey through "the baroque theater of Criss's mind."

Critics hated it. Angel's young fans from the "Mindfreak" show wondered why their TV cool guy had been replaced by some fool trying to break dance with guys in derby hats.

So now, "Believe" is just a magic show. The one people might have expected had Cirque never been involved. It's impossible for anyone who saw the earlier version not to compare. Occasionally, I even found myself surprised to be reacting to its spareness and simplicity by humming the Joni Mitchell line, "You don't know what you've got till it's gone."

But Angel fans and first-timers not tripped up those comparisons probably will like it just fine.

There isn't a lot of big-budget magic out there anymore. Angel is doing it loud, fast and with a lot of pyrotechnic explosions that better live up to his Goth-rock "Mindfreak" image.

He puts razor blades in his mouth and escapes from a straitjacket, hanging upside down over the audience. But he is also willing to laugh at himself by letting a sidekick spoof his do-rag pirate look, and even by showing the crowd a baby pic of him potty training.

The rule of thumb for any magic show applies here: It's not the tricks, it's the personality of the magician that sells the thing. The only difference is that Angel's personality is divisive.

There's no arguing the illusions are better now, with a serious effort to come up with things we haven't seen. The newest one places the star in the highest of three stacked cubes, with others in the two beneath, before transporting him to two surprising places.

Now solely in charge of creative content, Angel may have overcorrected in stripping some illusions down to their basic mechanics. David Copperfield is still the master of the buildup. He doesn't merely produce a 1948 Lincoln out of nowhere; he does it at the end of an involving narrative.

Likewise, the standout illusions here are the handful with extra humor or a surprise twist, especially when so many of the mechanics are still based on switches and vanishes (and we all know the guy has permission to saw holes in the stage).

For all the money spent on a high-tech sawing in half -- a holdover from the first edition, but with Angel no longer the victim -- the one you really take home is lower key; a play on the "cups and balls," where an audience member is brought up to play a human version of the old shell game with startling results.

The old show ventured too far into the Land of Pretentious, framing all the magic within a surreal ballet. But now the obligatory levitation of a female assistant, or Angel's vertical walk down a giant bridal train -- the rare thing everyone liked the first time -- are more, "Here's another illusion." There must be a happy medium, one that brings back Cirque's creativity for more than production support.

Angel says more illusions are on the way, as well as relighting a stage that sometimes looks threadbare when left-over production elements aren't in play.

The magician still can't make you like him or his work if you are determined not to. But he's no longer promising one thing and then delivering something else.

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.

 

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