"Life is death without change, right?"
For most of us, that's metaphoric wisdom. For Criss Angel, it's a little more literal.
The magician says it in the same positive-thinking context that absorbs much of a late-night chat, after the second of two Saturday shows. It's one that's otherwise upbeat with animated talk of how he is "obsessed and passionate with the art of magic," and how he wants to "share my passion and my love for this art and make it the best it can be. Not because I have to, but because I want to."
But two years ago this weekend? Well, it can't be stated in any high-planed way.
"I got my ass handed to me."
"Criss Angel: Believe" was supposed to be a can't-miss proposition. It teamed a magician who commanded a formidable TV fan base with the unstoppable Cirque du Soleil, which had conquered the Strip with five hit shows.
On the day they went public in March 2007, there was no reason to doubt Angel and Cirque's promise to "reinvent magic like (Cirque) reinvented the circus."
But from the earliest previews, word spread that "Believe" was coming off more like a shotgun marriage. The attempt to blend Cirque's artsy visuals with Angel's goth-rock appeal played like an art-damaged ballet. The Los Angeles Times called it a "gloomy, gothic muddle of a show that officially lurched into being on Halloween night like some patched-together Frankenstein's monster."
Cut to the two-year anniversary. The props and costumes are familiar, but "Believe" has radically transformed; more than any Las Vegas production in recent memory.
Gone down the rabbit hole is most of Cirque's original contribution: dancers, musicians and a surreal storyline framing the illusions as a near-death experience when one of Angel's stunts goes awry.
What's replaced it? The show many fans might have expected in the first place: Angel playing the David Copperfield of his generation, chatting with fans and serving up one illusion after another; nearly 40, by his count, with two more still on the way.
"People wanted to see 'Mindfreak,' " the 42-year-old says of the A&E series that took magic to real locations and young audiences in a six-season run. "They wanted to get to know Criss Angel, and they wanted to see parts of my personality that they typically wouldn't see on TV."
Instead, Angel seemed more like the miscast star of a spectacle designed for another personality. "What we tried to do was just not right for the time and for Criss Angel. Maybe it would have been great if it was somebody else."
The new "Believe" could be read as a giant step backward, to the more predictable showcase people might have expected before Cirque was attached. "I could have done it without Cirque and I could have made a lot more money, to be perfectly frank with you," he says.
But he is philosophic about aiming high. "We tried to go down a road that hasn't been traveled," he says. "We were embarking on a journey together that was going to try to push the envelope. You try things, you think they're going to work. They're great in theory, but then they don't play out."
In the early weeks after fans and critics jeered, Cirque officials stuck to the usual plan of "fixation" -- adjustments based on audience reaction -- that it employs for all its titles, whether they needed just a bit of tweaking ("Love") or a lot of work ("Zumanity").
But after six months, Cirque no longer promised a delivery date for an overhauled "Believe." Angel now says he and then-Luxor president Felix Rappaport lobbied to "give me the free rein to do what I wanted to do with the show." The near-death premise vanished a year ago; the dancers were released in June.
When Cirque was readying "Viva Elvis" last winter, Gilles Ste-Croix, the company's top creative executive, noted, "We have changed our point of view on how to do magic. It rests really on the magician."
"I wanted to direct the show from the beginning," Angel says of the job Cirque gave to Serge Denoncourt. "But I understand why, (with that) huge amount of money, you want to have somebody being the gatekeeper." The changes have saved Cirque money, and Angel claims "Believe" is "the No. 1 best-selling magic show in the world. The proof is somewhat in the pudding."
(Copperfield might dispute that claim. In Las Vegas, he performs fewer shows each year in a smaller venue. But he still tours and plays sports arenas in some overseas markets.)
Without officially closing the show for more than its scheduled breaks, Angel came in early each day to rehearse new illusions. "The pacing is now like a rock concert," he says. "No filler, no taking one moment and extending it longer than it has to be."
The same seems to be true of Angel's offstage life. Two years ago, the magician was living in a Luxor suite and -- possibly playing the press to his own promotional ends --seemed to welcome any and all photos of him with his celebrity date of the week.
But his image imploded with several bad-boy episodes, including a threatening outburst directed at Review-Journal columnist Norm Clarke at the Miss USA pageant in 2008.
Angel has now turned into a suburban homeowner and significantly dialed down his club-hopping image.
"Criss has learned," Ste-Croix noted last winter. "He was a big mouth to the press, and I think he has learned from that. The press has to be your ally and not against you."
Angel now talks of being "a citizen of the world doing good things." Instead of "crawling under a rock," he says he "just chose to say, 'You know what? I'm not going to be the fuel for anybody to put stuff out there.' So I made a conscious decision to focus on the show, focus on my career, to try to better myself as opposed to letting myself get caught up in the negativity."
So the haters will be frustrated. "Believe" goes on, and so does its star. "Four months from now, you'll see something new in there," he promises.
"I'm a maniac as far as trying to make things the best they can be. We try to finesse and refine all of the moments. It's a never-ending process. And I think that's a very healthy process."
Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.