BeLIEve Two Years Later
by Rory Johnston
Two years ago on Halloween, I attended BeLIEve starring Criss Angel and subsequently wrote up my impressions of the show for the December 2008 issue of this magazine. I began by referencing the vitriolic reactions of many other critics, but quickly added that I personally liked the show - not because it was a good magic show, but because it was fascinating theater.
My review was both positive and negative. I felt there were numerous problems with the production, most of which came down to the difficulty of blending Cirque du Soleil's distinctive style with Angel's Mindfreak persona. Other troubles came about because of the choice of director, a man who was on record as saying, "Everyone knows I hate magic." His lack of enthusiasm for and knowledge of our art definitely affected the production in a very detrimental way.
BeLIEve was a Cirque show with Angel as the main character, but that character was painfully out of place in the baroque circus setting created for him. My conclusion was that the show had great potential. I said that I would like to return month by month to see how it evolved. I did not. I waited two years, until it was announced that Criss was now in charge of the show and that major changes had been made to the production, reflecting that it was under new management. "It's my vision now," said the new director/writer/magic designer - Angel himself. So the end of October 2010 seemed like a good time for me to revisit BeLIEve and take a look.
Was it a new show? Yes and no. The great news is that the part that remained was the good stuff and the things that have been exercised were, for the most part, the problems. In other words, it's a much, much better show. In fact, I'd say it's a good show. And if you are one of Criss Angel's fans, it's a very good show.
BeLIEve has found a new voice. The French accent is nearly gone, replaced by a strong one from the streets of Brooklyn. The new incarnation is closer to "Mindfreak Live" than the original BeLIEve. Upon arrival at the theatre, the changes might not be immediately noticable. The decor remains the same, the theater still resembles a Victorian London opera house, and the first fifteen minutes of the show featuring the antics of four European-style clowns has not changed much. But the clips from Mindfreak shown on the big screen no longer seem like video from another production, because when the curtains finally open to reveal the star, we are plunged into a magic show, through and through. The scenario of Criss being in a terrible electrocution accident and dreaming the entire story is, thankfully, gone. The dance numbers have vanished. The circus acts have disappeared. The girls flying on cables and people rising out of trap doors in the stage have been eliminated. The use of obvious plants in the audience has been stopped. The show has become simpler and more focused.
Two years ago, I felt that the weakest part of the show was Criss himself. He seemed out of place and overwhelmed. Now I must state the exact opposite: Angel is what the show is all about. Before, Mindfreak fans seemed to be sorely disappointed in the production because it was not what they expected from a show centered around the television personality. Now I think fans of his popular series will be thrilled with BeLIEve. For example, his live performance of the Razor Blades, accompanied by photographs of his bloody mouth, supposedly the result of a mishap at another performance, is vintage Mindfreak material. The star is personable and likable. Really. He's self-depreciating, allowing the clown character in the show to parody him and magic in general, and he even shows family photos of himself, including one on the toilet as a child. He speaks about his family, love of children, and even God. It's endearing and, even though he maintains his Goth bad-boy image, you feel like you are seeing through that to a genuinely nice guy with whom you might like to spend some time hanging out.
Is the magic good? Yes. Twenty-four months of nightly performances have tightened up the timing, and where speed counts, speed happens. There have been changes made that take the magic from just ok to very good. One such change, for example, has taken his upside-down straight jacket escape from the least effective version I'd seen to the most impressive version I've seen. After he is bound and hoisted aloft, he is spun in place, twisting like a tornado, twirling in a blur of motion until the jacket suddenly flies off. It's a dramatic twist on an age-old trick that pushes it to a new level of fascination. The fake drop at the end is merely icing on the cake now, not the big moment, and it serves mainly as a gag to highlight Angel's prankster side. It's a charming personality moment.
Although most of the Cirque veneer is gone, some of the costumes and cool rabbit stuff survived the cut. My big laugh in the show - a movie rabbit running to the edge of the screen - remains, although featured in an entirely different way. The dancing rabbit head, another of my favorite surrealistic moments, is still featured. Criss has found ways to make use of props and bits that are no longer part of the dance numbers. An entirely new comic routine with an animated rabbit has been added, so the magician/rabbit theme continues, albeit in a diminished way. The astoundingly impressive video backdrops remain and are used to enhance the mood and illusion throughout the evening. The clowns actually have an expanded role, returning again and again during the show. This, for me, was not a plus, but their presence did allow for set changes and necessary preparation of illusions.
The main magic effects seem to be vanishes and reappearances. At least nine of the show's routines involve a vanish or an appearance, including a real fooler that Criss calls Enigma. There are several levitations, including a clever variation that features Angel walking forward with the floating girl in full view, and the stunning piece in which he walked down the side of a wall formed by a giant wedding dress. The mega-machine illusions remain, twenty or thirty feet tall, looking impressive on the stage wherever they appear. Angel's dove act is still a featured moment, a simple tableau that seems somewhat out of character but is well presented and shows other skills. One of the cleverest, most original routines features a volunteer from the audience participating in a giant Shell Game, with massive cups and a human pea. The ending is a nice surprise.
Make no mistake, this is the Criss Angel show, not a Cirque du Soleil extravaganza. Do I miss anything from the old version? Sure. I miss the incredible variety of beautiful costumes that were pure eye candy. I miss the poppies floating down from the sky to the stage. I miss the amazing moment as the wedding dress grew and grew and then rose into the air, a sequence that has been cut for time. I miss the bizarre little dancing moles. I miss - well, actually, that's about all I miss. The gains far outweigh the losses.
I would recommend BeLIEve to any Criss Angel fan. In this new version, I believe they will get what they are expecting: the TV star in person, in character, doing some good magic. Beyond that, I'd recommend it to people who are not fans. Criss is certainly one of the most famous and influential figures in magic right now, and his show is a part of magic history. If you saw the production before, comparing the two is a real lesson in adaptability, focus, and how important having a strong voice is for any entertainer. Before you judge Criss Angel's vision, go see it. You didn't really see it before. I BeLIEve you'll be pleasantly surprised.
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