Magic in Michigan

A pair of home-grown illusionists star as part of an international tour of jaw-dropping tricks that amaze and amuse


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Photographs by Joan Marcus

Last December, The Illusionists: Witness The Impossible shattered box office records on Broadway. Even some of the most hard to please New York audiences had their minds blown by the world’s greatest magicians. Heck, even Woody Allen couldn’t resist snapping a backstage selfie after the show.

Producer Simon Painter created The Illusionists as a one-off production for the Sydney Opera House in 2012, but after raking in more than $3 million in eight days, he persuaded the magicians to embark on a three-year world tour that played to sold-out arenas in Asia, South America, and Dubai. Now their jaw-dropping magic is coming to Detroit. 

These seven men — two of them hailing from Michigan — are not garden variety pull-a-rabbit-out-of-a-hat magicians. Each performer fuses traditional tricks with gorgeous costumes, dazzling lasers, and dynamic choreography. Large projection screens and special cameras focus on every detail.

Both Jeff Hobson and Kevin James learned the art of magic as kids in Michigan.

Magic, a magazine read by professional magicians around the world, named Hobson one of the 10 Funniest Magic Acts along with the likes of Penn & Teller. As “The Trickster” Hobson roams through the venue teasing the audience with double entendres while stealing a dozen or so wristwatches he pulls from the pockets of his glittering smoking jacket at the finale of his act. Despite performing the same tricks thousands of times in Las Vegas, he always makes the audience feel like it’s the first time.

James is the show’s “Inventor.” Moving around the stage in thick sunglasses and the snowy white lab coat of a deranged doctor, he saws through the body of what appears to be a living, breathing man then commands the torso to float off the table. 

 

Made in Michigan

Hobson’s introduction to magic came in the form of a Detroit police officer, who enlivened a school safety lesson with magic tricks. Whether or not Hobson learned to look both ways before crossing the street, the 7-year-old was hooked on magic. 

Hobson developed an act that he performed while attending Lutheran East High School in Harper Woods. He skipped college and left town for Las Vegas, where he now lives, but returns to Michigan often — most recently to Colon where he lectured on magic as part of the Abbott Magic Company’s Annual Magic Get-Together, a nonstop celebration of magic shows and workshops attended by professional magicians and magic fans. 

Kevin James grew up in Jonesville (near Hillsdale) where he learned magic from books borrowed from the local public library. 

“I mowed a lot of lawns to save up enough money to buy magic tricks,” James says. “I still remember seeing the ‘Welcome to Colon’ sign on the highway when I was 11 and walking into Abbott with my parents: the skeletons painted on the building, the old magic show posters pasted on the ceiling, the creaky floors ... the cool magic tricks in glass cases.

“Some kids grow out of wanting to do magic, fortunately I never did,” James says.

After his junior year at Western Michigan University studying theater arts, he moved to Los Angeles and began inventing his own tricks, ones he later performed at the Crazy Horse Saloon, a Parisian nightclub famous for nude dancing girls. More recently, he performed in the East Room of the White House at the request of President Obama.

“As a history buff, working the White House was a cool experience,” he says.

James returned to Michigan for a family visit in 2014 and stopped in Colon on Michigan Magic Day. In a show hosted by Rick Fisher of FAB Magic, he delighted the audience with his signature trick, one that he taught David Copperfield.

“David said he wanted to perform my floating rose trick on television so I showed him how to do it,” James says.

The trick is simple, but unbelievable. On stage James fashions a white rose from a square of paper and wills it to float through the air on command. In a flash of fire the white paper burns, leaving behind ashes and a real red rose. He promises to perform the floating rose trick at the Fisher Theatre.

 

The Rest of the Cast

The other members of the seven-man crew are no shrinking violets.

Like Harry Houdini before him, Italian magician Andrew Basso is handcuffed, chained, and plunged upside down into a sealed water tank with no air and only minutes to escape. But Houdini didn’t look as sexy as Basso does when he sheds a skintight leather outfit to reveal a well-toned six-pack.

Dan Sperry, billed as “The Anti-Conjuror,” lives by the motto “Magic No Longer Sucks.” His in-your-face style — part Goth and part mayhem topped with a large glob of ick and a side order of gross — is mildly disgusting. 

Younger audience members love his act, but some older audience members find the faux hawk wearing, multipierced, tattooed guy with blood on his face a bit creepy. Sperry’s act involves ingesting dental floss and razor blades then producing the blades threaded onto the floss from his unharmed mouth. But once the initial shock wears off, his skilled performance shines through the gimmicks. 

Basso and Sperry flirt with danger, but in Aaron Crow’s act it’s the audience that’s in peril. 

Crow, a Belgian performer billed as “The Warrior,” uses dangerous weapons — nunchucks, swords, switchblades, and crossbows — to chop fruit off the heads of audience members dragged onstage. 

Tradition requires that a magician who performs this type of trick wear a blindfold, usually a bright silk scarf. But Crow’s DIY blindfold is anything but traditional. While frightened audience members visibly tremble in anticipation, only seconds away from certain decapitation, Crow pours a layer of hot candle wax into his eyes, stretches black duct tape across his face and wraps his head with aluminum foil. Suddenly without warning, he strikes and chops the fruit — narrowly missing fearful heads, then dismisses the participants who scurry off stage to safety.

There’s nothing dangerous about Korea’s Yu Ho-Jin, an award-winning magician with the striking good looks of a Calvin Klein model. Instead, “The Manipulator,” silently charms the audience with his graceful moves and a deck of cards that appears from nowhere, changes colors, multiplies, grows, shrinks, and disappears in a cloud of smoke. 

Voted the best card manipulator by a prestigious magicians organization when he was still a teenager, his tranquil performance is a welcome change from the show’s fast pace. 

Everything about Adam Trent’s performance is cool and fun, from his hipster clothes to his dance moves and ironic sense of humor. As the show’s “Futurist,” he brings a high-tech vibe to the stage using neon lights and large-scale props. Often described as a combination of David Copperfield and Justin Timberlake, he puts his own silly spin on audience participation magic tricks.


The Illusionists: Witness The Impossible, is at the Fisher Theatre April 28-May 10. Tickets are available at the Fisher Theatre box office and online from broadwayindetroit.com. Children younger than 5 are not admitted.

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