Magician Jeff Hobson says he used to consider performing in Vegas the "pinnacle" of his career, but he hit an unexpected new professional high late last year when he played Broadway with the ensemble show "The Illusionists."
"We were, without any previous experience on Broadway, the fourth best-selling show during that (week)," Hobson says. "We were pretty amazed."
In the show's final week of six on Broadway, it outgrossed all but "Wicked," "The Lion King" and "The Book of Mormon," topping juggernauts like "Kinky Boots" and "The Phantom of the Opera." Now the show has embarked on a U.S. tour, which will play the Fisher Theatre through May 10. The show's unique format features seven different magicians of varying specialties, indicated by their colorful names: the Anti-Conjuror, the Inventor, the Futurist, the Manipulator, the Trickster, the Escapologist and the Warrior.
"It's a big show," says Kevin James, who plays the Inventor. "It's seven of the top magicians doing their top material. Everybody's got their own style, their own voice, their own point of view."
James' reference to the "top" magicians is no mere hyperbole. He is well-known for creating tricks performed by superstar magicians, including David Copperfield. The Academy of Magical Arts named Yu Ho-Jin, who plays the Manipulator in the show, 2014's "Magician of the Year." And Italian magician Andrew Basso, the show's Escapologist, is known for being the only performer to escape Harry Houdini's famed water torture cell in full view of an audience, with nothing covering the tank he's locked in. Coincidentally, the show happens to feature two Michiganians: the Jonesville-raised James and Detroit-bred Hobson.
"You're not going to get a better show," Hobson says. "I always call this show the magic show for people who don't like magic shows."
Even before its Broadway success, "The Illusionists" has been well-received worldwide. The show first bowed at the Sydney Opera House three years ago, featuring four of the magicians who remain in the touring show today. After making a splash in Australia, the show set out to crisscross South America, Europe and Asia.
"It's just the right thing at the right time," James says. "There haven't been any big touring magic shows in quite a while. Copperfield was really the only game in town for many years and now he's spending 45 weeks out of the year in Vegas. So I think there's a huge need for really good, family-friendly entertainment."
Producer Lee Marshall says that family-friendly component is key to "The Illusionists'" success, noting that the show appeals to three generations of audiences.
"When we played Broadway, we probably did a third of our business with kids," Marshall says. "Kids are fascinated with magic, and there's a lot of really fun stuff for kids. It's just well-rounded entertainment."
For Hobson, "The Illusionists"' run at the Fisher will bring his career full circle to his own youthful infatuation with magic. He fondly recalls seeing magician Doug Henning at the Fisher at age 14.
"He completely sealed the deal for me," Hobson says. "There was nothing else I wanted to do the rest of my life except that. So being able to actually perform on the same stage where I had that experience is going to be great."
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.
Through May 10
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