Viva Las Magic

 

The masters of illusion light up the Las Vegas sky   

Viva Las Magic by Barbara Neal Varma   There's more vanishing in Vegas these days than just your money. Over at the Monte Carlo, a red Corvette is dropping out of sight; at the MGM Grand, a motorcycle disappears into thin air; and at Harrah's, the magician's very head is, like - OMG, gone! No doubt the business of doing tricks is thriving in Sin City, adding an edge of mystery to this desert-bound town that some say is nothing more than an illusion itself. Perhaps the secret to magic's longtime success here is its ability to make us grownups feel a sense of wonder again, like when Uncle Bob plucked a coin out of our ear or Dad actually yanked off his thumb (no way!) and then miraculously mended it back together. Sure, little sister might have run screaming from the room, but the rest of us stayed put, ready to see what else Dad could do with his digits.

   With today's bad news popping up like rabbits out of a hat (think the collapsing economy, the credit crunch, the return of Paris Hilton's "My New BFF" to MTV), there's a desperate need for fantasy in our very real lives. Check out these Vegas shows and return to the time when daring won over doubt, when you believed - really believed - in magic.

Lance Burton at the Monte Carlo

   Because so many magic shows have called Las Vegas home, local audiences are almost bored these days to witness the impossible: magicians hovering overhead, daring and death-defying escapes right before their eyes, and the split-second metamorphosis of lions and tigers and bears - oh my! Lance Burton's show at the Monte Carlo, staged nightly in the $27 million dollar Lance Burton Theatre, sports all the required heart-stopping effects but adds two more hard-to-do tricks to the mix: skilled sleight of hand born of patience and practice and an easy connection with the crowd.

   Burton, named Entertainer of the Year in 2006 by Nevada magazine, begins his show by performing his signature effect: making doves and other assorted flying fowl appear and disappear at his whim. It's these types of classic yet catch-you-off-guard illusions that draw thousands annually to Burton's stage - grandparents reliving the velvet days of vaudeville, baby boomers mesmerized by the mind-blowing magic, and children of all ages wondering how this soft-spoken son of Louisville, Kentucky, grew up to be so, like, totally cool. Indeed, kids are so enthralled by Burton's easy banter - he jokes that white ducks are so much harder to train than white tigers - he's able to pull off the best trick of all: getting the young'uns to sit still and pay attention.

   As an added bonus, Burton throws in juggler Mike Goudeau, who comes out tossing bean bags because, really, balls are so blasé. Everybody watch out when Goudeau raises the ante and adds in a running chain saw. Kids, don't try this at home. That goes for you, too, granddad.

   Insider's Tip: The Lance Burton theatre is big enough to stage large scale illusions but small enough to keep the audience close to the action. The difference between the front section and the balcony is only $6, so if you can spare the extra six from the slots, it's well worth it.

   Fun Fact: Burton's act reputedly has more birds than any theater show in the world: 60 white doves, ducks, geese and a white parakeet named Elvis. The birds have been featured on The Discovery Channel's "Dirty Jobs," an episode that was the most viewed in Discovery's history at that time and is still airing over three years later.

David Copperfield at the MGM

   "Classic" also defines Copperfield whose career has spanned many generations of awe-struck onlookers and audience members. His show was one of the first to defy gravity as rumors of the veteran magician taking flight during his show fed ticket sales and eager curiosities. Copperfield is perhaps best known for his "now you see it, now you don't" grand-scale illusions, making such innocuous things as, oh, the Statue of Liberty, disappear on national TV. Copperfield effectively brings his super-sized magic to the MGM stage, not scrimping on the enormity of the effect despite being confined to the indoors. Using real-time TV technology, Copperfield whisks away a random member of the audience to an island in the Caribbean, verified by the live feed from the island's sandy shores. One minute the volunteer is sheepishly grinning on stage, the next he's frolicking in the sand, completely mystified at how he arrived there. Brings a whole new meaning to the term "audience participation."

   Insider's tip: Volunteers are a big part of the show as Copperfield incorporates a person picked at random for almost every act. Chances are you'll see him do a trick right in front of your seat while he mingles with the audience.

   Fun Fact: Despite his many breathtaking feats and firsts, Copperfield has gone on record to say the achievement he's most proud of is his Project Magic program for people with various physical, mental and social disabilities. By learning to do magic, Copperfield believes, these individuals achieve new skills, but more importantly, new confidence. 

Mac King at Harrah's

   Those who like side-splitting comedy served along with their prestidigitation should head straight to the Mac King Comedy Magic Show at Harrah's. The long time "magi-comic" has earned the accolades of both his colleagues - "Mac King is a god," says Penn of Penn & Teller - and prestigious honors from the biz including "Magician of the Year" awarded by the Magic Castle in Hollywood. King's got it all and for an altogether reasonable price: around $25 bucks per person for a generous portion of magic and mirth. Sure, those other guys down the Strip can boast large-scale illusions, but can they make their head disappear?

   King also offers a better family fare menu than the bare-it-all Vegas blockbusters. "I'm proud of the fact that my show appeals to people of all ages and walks of life," King says on his Web site. "I've gotten standing ovations from tattooed biker guys and prim grandmas. Even surly teenagers seem to like it." Indeed, King often brings today's youth on stage with him for a bit of good-natured entertainment. Maybe if the price is right, Mom and Dad, Mr. Magic can make your teenager disappear.

   Insider's Tip: The 1 p.m. show is usually less crowded than the 3 p.m. show, and for just around $25 you get a good amount of laughter and levitation.

   Fun Fact: Women with matrimony on the mind, take note: King met his wife, Jennifer Sils when she volunteered during one of his performances. Something to consider, ladies, the next time the magician is looking for a few good women to come up on stage.

Penn & Teller at the Rio 

   The first thing Penn will tell you at the opening of the Penn & Teller Show is that theirs is a magic act like no other. He's right about that since the admittedly eccentric duo does something on stage other Vegas wizards do not: they show you how it's done. Oh, not every effect - can't spoil all the fun - but a select few from the magician's bag, and here's the real trick: it doesn't ruin a thing. Indeed, you're as entertained by seeing Teller shimmy around the inside of a trick box as you are impressed with the effect itself; more so, perhaps, because with the veil lifted off, something else is illuminated: the creativity of it all.

   Penn and Teller encourage audience members to come on up and inspect the solid containers and other props on stage before the show begins. Of course, none of this stops the impossible from happening - which just adds to the comedy and drama, as planned. The pair's star-making illusion is the magic bullet trick, one they've performed in front of thousands with, so far, no scalp nicks or blundered bullet holes. They save the ballistics for the end of the show without, of course, giving away its secret. Combining humor, entertainment, magic, and a bonus layer of let-'em-see effects, Penn and his silent partner Teller hit the bull's eye.

   Insider's Tip: In a time when other magicians tend to recycle their tricks, Penn and Teller have added five new bits and three new effects to their show at the Rio.

   Fun Fact: Reportedly, the magic partners have never canceled a show and take far fewer vacations than most Vegas headliners. Even when he was appearing in Dancing with the Stars, Penn never missed a Penn & Teller performance."

Criss Angel at the Luxor

   Opening on Halloween night, Criss Angel's "Believe" is designed to be a boiling mix of the bad boy magician's imagination and the heavenly imagery of Cirque du Soleil. Fans of Angel will no doubt flock to "Believe," his latest vision of what magic should and could be when served overexposed and on the cutting edge. Throughout the show, Angel performs the type of risky, dark magic he's famous for, all the while surrounded by the storytelling effects of the Cirque du Soleil acrobatic players. It's intended to make for an audacious and intoxicating show - where else could you see giant bunnies in black leather, or a ghostly bride's wedding dress unspooling in an unending train? Well, Hollywood Boulevard during the Do Da parade, maybe, but Angel's magnetic presence on stage brings it all together in a rhapsody of illusion that, if a bit overdone in the dry ice department, still makes the audience gasp in deliciously morbid fascination. Add to that the vibrating and haunting cinematic soundtrack by composer Eric Serra and you've got a fresh twist on traditional magic moves, courtesy of an Angel.

   Insider's Tip: Parents might want to leave the younger kids back in the buffet line for this one. But for those who aren't afraid of dark enchantment, choose seats that give you a full view of the stage since the visual effects are an integral part of the drama.

   Fun Fact: Fans have clamored to see more of Angel's "Mindfreak"y personality than was originally choreographed for "Believe." As a result, the magician has expanded his speaking and spooking role in the production.

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