- PHOTO BY SETH KUBERSKY
Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of observing many masters of magic, both world-famous (David Copperfield, Penn & Teller) and under-appreciated (Asi Wind, Jeff McBride), but I’ve usually had to leave Central Florida to do so. Orlando’s tourist industry is built around “magic,” but despite our area’s extensive population of wizards and fairies, there’s precious little actual prestidigitation being performed around town. Sure, you can still find trick demonstrations inside magic shops at some local theme parks (though the Magic Kingdom’s are sadly long gone), and a new Great Magic Hall is scheduled to open at Kissimmee’s Old Town later in 2014. But though O-town offers evening attractions built around jousting knights, mystery-solving sleuths and surreal circus stunts, no one has succeeded with a large-scale illusion production like you’ll find in Las Vegas. Lately, however, I’ve become aware of a more modest magicians’ resurgence. In recent weeks, I’ve attended under-the-radar performances by three very different illusionists, and what I experienced may point to the possible future of magic performances in the Orlando area.
It started late last month with a forwarded invitation for a “VIP” performance by Drew Thomas at his warehouse workshop in south Orlando. Thomas is a veteran entertainer who has designed illusions for Universal Studios, Six Flags, Royal Caribbean and Disney Cruise Line; his biggest claim to fame was as a finalist for the Hasselhoff-judged reality competition, America’s Got Talent. On April 4, I was among a standing-room-only audience (made up chiefly of friends and enthusiastic supporters) squeezed into an industrial rehearsal space for a preview of his latest show, Materialize.
Thomas’ flashy production was far more elaborate than the unglamorous location would imply, employing a cast of eight (including a trio of dancing assistants), the “dopest DJ on the planet,” several video screens and an eye-popping array of automated lights. His show ranged from mentalism and card tricks to a bondage-inspired twist on “sawing a lady in half” and even included a brief Michael Jackson impersonation. (Disclosure: Samantha O’Hare, an actress I’ve directed in the past, previously served as Thomas’ assistant; she no longer performs with him, though she’s still pictured in his promotions.)
Drew is a competent performer, but visibly fumbled with some of his new mechanisms. His evident natural charisma is at times overwhelmed by Criss Angel-esqe pretentiousness, especially during a maudlin monologue about a sick kid who supposedly inspired his finale. Most crucially, Thomas constantly informs his audience how “innovative” he is, but nearly every trick (aside from a superb bit of sleight-of-hand involving a marked quarter and a Coke can) was a variation on the traditional “metamorphosis” and “vanishing cabinet” effects, often with obviously wobbling mirrors or ill-concealed escape hatches. Materialize might impress from the back row of a 4,000-seat showroom, but Thomas’ charm can’t conceal what’s hiding behind the curtain up close.
A few days later, I found myself at the Venue in Ivanhoe Village for a free magic double-header featuring Kardenni and Nick Paul, whom you may recognize from Walt Disney World’s Boardwalk. Like Thomas’ show, this one was being recorded for possible promotional use, albeit in front of a far smaller crowd. The biggest difference is that this production was appropriately billed as “a non-pretentious magic show”; no flashy stunts or gyrating eye candy here, just carefully learned legerdemain.
Kardenni took the stage first, dressed in a Reservoir Dogs-style suit and skinny tie, and performed a tight 30 minutes of mesmerizing mentalism tricks. I was the first audience “volunteer” selected to participate and was surprised by the swift simplicity with which he guessed the color I was thinking of. More divinations involving candy bars, giant playing cards and scraps of newspaper swiftly followed, as Kardenni flew from one impressive effect to another with a minimum of fuss. His finale, in which he solved a Rubik’s Cube blindfolded, deservedly brought the audience to their feet.
He was followed by Nick Paul, who has performed from Tokyo to Off-Broadway and is “the greatest magician … in his family.” That self-effacing modesty is integral to his mute magic, which is presented silent-movie style, complete with explanatory intertitles on hand-lettered placards and an appealing Little Tramp-like persona. Paul’s effects – milking quarters from behind ears, producing a card from inside an orange – are practically ancient, but his winning wordless presentation (which included an accordion-accented soundtrack and Siri-style audio assistant) made them feel fresh again. Though his aesthetic may appear anachronistic, artists like Paul are bringing audiences back to the future of magic.