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As Teller nears return, ‘Penn & Friends’ exceeds expectations

Penn Jillette has dressed in the satin dragon suit of Piff the Magic Dragon’s father, Pop, at the Flamingo. He has also slid into the famed Cloak of Invisibility, favored by Mac King when King needs to move unseen during his shows at Harrah’s.

Jillette commits, no question, a quality reinforced in “Penn & Friends” at the Rio’s Penn & Teller Theater. Jillette and co-stars Piff (played by John Van der Put) and King are filling the dates left open by Teller’s most recent back surgery. Matt Donnelly, creator of “The Mind Noodler” magic showcase, has also stepped into the “P&F” shows when Piff can’t make it.

Teller has set Feb. 1 as his return date at the Rio, where Penn & Teller opened in January 2001. The current lineup performs at 9 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Jillette, King and Donnelly have added dates for “P&F” Jan. 18-19.

If anything, “Penn & Friends” has exceeded expectations, as a performance and also at the box office. The show is routinely drawing about 1,100 to the 1,475-seat venue. The performances have been a relief to hotel officials, who were not eager to dump 20 dates and asked Jillette to come up with something suitable for the theater.

When faced with these jarring changes in plans, Jillette originally said he was “scared to death” of his partner’s absence. The idea was certainly an an odd fit of unlike personalities, led by Jillette’s dominant narration in his home theater.

The writing sketch for the performances happened quickly, and were headed up by P&T’s manager Glenn Alai during a late-night tavern hang in London, where Jillette was attending the opening of “Magic Goes Wrong” at Mischief Theater. The concept wasn’t drawn on a cocktail napkin, exactly, though it was a hasty blueprint of a show never attempted.

But the three are close, and the friendship is evident during the show’s first transition from Jillette to King. Jillette performs a rope trick, inviting an audience member to the stage and clipping away at the piece while showing the entire audience (aside from his onstage guest) how the trick is done.

Then King arrives, producing his own rope, saying, “Now I’m going to show you how this is supposed to look.”

King also summons a sidekick in the Cloak of Invisibility (actually a plain, yellow raincoat) carrying champagne glass with a goldfish swimming inside. This is to give the impression that the glass is floating across the stage; the 6-foot-6 Jillette barely fits into the jacket and giggles his way through the routine.

Piff is met by laughs instantly, showing up in the vast theater in his now-classic dragon suit. He called a woman to the stage wearing a large, white-furred jacket, saying, “I see you are wearing Mr. Piffles’ mother.” That’s a reference to his 10-year-old Chihuahua sidekick. He runs through the bit where Piffles seems to swallow the woman’s apparently expensive wedding ring, saying, “You will get that ring back in four to six hours, gift-wrapped!”

Initially, Jillette considered calling the show “Penn & Fellas,” but held off as that title was too satirical of “Penn & Teller,” which stands alone as a Vegas institution. Besides, it is not all fellas — showgirls Georgie Bernasek, who has partnered with P&T for 20 years; and Piff’s sidekick Jade Simone are also in the cast. Holding the role he assumed 18 years ago, jazz-piano master Mike “Jonesy” Jones supplies the music interludes.

The group met after the show in P&T’s Monkey Room, long the site of post-show confabs, with Piff spinning a Rubik’s Cube handed to him by Jillette’s daughter, Moxie CrimeFighter Jillette, and King jabbing jokingly at Piff that a routine he has added to the show might have ripped off his own goldfish bit. Jillette recalled avoiding the topic of “Star Wars” during a visit by George Lucas to the Monkey Room (Jillette famously hates the “Star Wars” franchise), focusing instead on “American Graffiti.” So awkward …

The show after the show made it clear these performing buddies have fallen into some good fortune. It might have a brief history, but “Penn & Friends” is an example of classic Vegas showbiz camaraderie from three performers at the top of their game. Ropes, as always, are furnished.

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His PodKats podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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