There are 2 magic shows in Vegas that are worth your time and money. The one I saw tonight wasn’t one of them, but first let me tell you about the other two.
First is the Mac King Comedy Magic Show. I first met Mac over a decade ago when he was working comedy clubs, and not long after was happy to hear that he’d inked a deal to do his act at Harrah’s, where he still performs five days a week at 1pm and 3pm. Unlike many of the other magic acts in town, Mac works solo and small — his close-up stuff surprises me every time I see it, and his banter with audience volunteers is a crash course in clever comedy. He doesn’t have any tigers or elephants or other large animals appearing out of nowhere, although there is one goldfish and a handful of Fig Newtons. I’ve recommended Mac’s show to dozens of people who have all thanked me later — without a single complaint. He’s always out front after the show, so if you go, tell him I sent you.
The other recommendation is Penn & Teller at The Rio, although you have to check their schedule because they’re often off performing elsewhere or working on other projects. I’ve seen these guys do their stuff in various forms for over 25 years, so whenever I bring someone to their show, I’m usually asked if I know how they do certain tricks. I always say that even if I had an idea of what was going on, I’d rather not know the details — magic is a lot less fun if you know how the tricks are done. I prefer to be awed at both the skill and the result. That applies tenfold to the routine P&T have closed their show with forever, the Double Bullet Catch, in which they each catch (in their teeth) a bullet shot by the other across the stage with a .357 Magnum. I’m always astounded and never want to know even an iota of how they do it. Penn & Teller also meet the audience in the lobby after every show, where you’ll always hear people surprised to find out that Teller talks.
Vegas used to have another very good magic show when Lance Burton performed at the Monte Carlo. I first went to see Lance because Penn recommended him to me, saying, “His opening sequence contains the finest sleight-of-hand work you’ll see, and you know how big a compliment that is, because I work with Teller.” What followed were 90 minutes combining big, sometimes-schmaltzy spectacle and delicate close-up magic. Lance was especially good with kids he plucked from the audience, including my daughter, who was invited up to help make Elvis The Parakeet disappear from his cage. Lance hasn’t announced a new show or venue, but when he does, it’ll be on my must-see list, I’m sure.
That brings us to the man I saw tonight, David Copperfield. I was familiar with Copperfield’s many TV specials, including those featuring his “death-defying” stunts and gigantic illusions. I’d never been a fan, but recognized that he had quite a skill set, and was curious to see what his live show, in a continuing run at the MGM Grand, looked like.
One thing Copperfield proved long ago is that he knows how to play to the camera. So, in his theater, he does close-up for people plucked from the audience, which the rest of us can see on three large screens on and around the stage. In those bits, he plays only to the camera, complete with his trademark eyebrow lift and smoldering smirk of self-awareness. He does the magic well, and is a smart enough showman to incorporate modern technology into other parts of the act, with one routine involving an e-mail sent to the entire audience that includes a prediction about some supposedly random people and events that take place in the open. Copperfield pulls off a few big illusions, too, opening the show by materializing on his motorcycle in a previously-empty box on stage, making a classic car appear out of nowhere while surrounded by audience members, and seeming to walk through a giant fan.
But mostly, Copperfield begs for applause. Not verbally, but by bowing at the end of each trick with his arms spread, the physical equivalent of saying, “Wasn’t what I just did incredible and amazing???” The audience tonight never rewarded him with a thunderous ovation, perhaps because, while he’s certainly talented and clever, he comes off as so damned needy.
The other problem with tonight’s show was that several audience members he chose to help with his tricks were from China, Brazil, Russia, and Mexico, but not fluent in English, so when he gave them simple directions (pick a card, hold it to your chest, hand me the deck) they rarely did what they were told correctly the first time. This is always a challenge for anyone working with “volunteers,” and while Copperfield tip-toed around the problem, he was clearly annoyed that it happened so many times in one show. Perhaps that’s a problem inherent in working in Vegas, which draws tourists from all over the world, or it may be because Copperfield’s specials made him known around the world — but I’ve never seen Mac or Penn & Teller (who also bring audience members onstage) have to traverse that linguistic minefield.
There have always been rumors that Copperfield uses plants, people who work for him but pretend to be regular audience members who he just happens to call on. If he’s doing that with folks who are English-challenged, it’s certainly a good way to deflect that criticism. Whether those stories are true or not is immaterial, frankly. What matters is whether Copperfield entertains and amazes, and he’s pretty good on both fronts.
For folks who want to see him in death-defying action, Copperfield shows a four-minute video of a routine he did on TV several years ago involving a straight jacket, burning ropes, and a lot of spikes. Nothing else in the stage show comes close to the exhilaration of that trick, which may explain why, for the rest of the night, he kept doing the hey-wow beg-bow.