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April 18, 2014

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Q+A: Despite surgery and rehab, Criss Angel presents ‘Magic Jam,’ reveals ‘Believe’ illusion

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Criss Angel’s “Magic Jam” at Luxor.

Criss Angel in Times Square for Spike TV

Criss Angel in Times Square in New York for his Spike TV series “Believe.” Launch slideshow »

Criss Angel’s ‘Believe’ on Spike TV

Criss Angel’s “Believe” on Spike TV.

Launch slideshow »

Magician Criss Angel was told that if he didn’t undergo shoulder surgery, he might be eventually forced to give up performing magic. He knew that he had no choice but to go under the knife.

But the expected 45-minute operation to repair torn muscles sustained in a New York City straitjacket stunt for his Spike series “Believe” eventually ran more than 3 hours. When surgeons opened up his right arm, they found his bicep hanging — torn from the shoulder.

Nobody believed that he’d be back onstage within a few months. He still doesn’t have clearance to resume the Cirque du Soleil show “Believe” at Luxor until hopefully sometime in April with its strenuous and dangerous illusions.

But Criss was determined not to let his theater staff, production crew and colleagues down, and although undergoing intense daily-rehabilitation workout sessions, he put together a new show, “Magic Jam,” at Luxor to keep everybody on the payroll.

He’s still under doctor’s orders to use extreme caution. His right arm is in a reinforced protective sling bolted to a waist strap. Under the skin, seven plastic screws — they will disintegrate after six months — hold everything in place.

The man who once jumped near the Grand Canyon on an exploding motorcycle and hung on fish hooks from a helicopter over Death Valley, Calif., now can’t even get a bear hug from family and friends.

“I have to be really careful. It’s frustrating. I could lift my arm before the surgery; now while it’s healing, I can’t. If I jump the wrong way, if I fall, I wreck it, and I would be finished,” he told me backstage recently.

But to keep his crew employed, he decided to risk the dangers, and everything he learned using his right arm he’s now doing on a limited basis with his left.

After two weeks of planning and rehearsing, he’s been able to unveil his dream show “Magic Jam” with fellow magicians and specialty acts, and incredibly after four days when I went to see him, he was up to 40 minutes of onstage hosting and illusions.

He introduced the comedy magic of his “Believe” protege Krystyn Lambert, who performed his straitjacket stunt; “America’s Got Talent” and former Flamingo headliner Nathan Burton; amazing mentalist Banacheck, who appeared on “Believe”; close-up card-shark Armando Vera from Mexico; Jason Byrne’s extraordinary and exotic birds that miraculously appear from nowhere; an adorable circus dog act; and funnyman Russ Merlin with his hilarious masked-audience participants.

“They are my unsung heroes, and it gives them their own starring platform,” said Criss. He’s tight-lipped about the future of “Magic Jam” after “Believe” returns but teases that he will be extending it in some format if he wins the expected blessing of Cirque and MGM Resorts.

Criss, who has taught himself to pull razor blades from his mouth with his left hand, did the impossible in showcasing the brain-defying, split-second table-top illusion “Enigma,” which will open “Believe” when he returns to it full time.

“Nobody tell me the razor trick isn’t real. I cut my mouth last night using my other hand. That was real blood,” he said.

“Magic Jam” is great fun and a high-energy show packed with mind-blowing magic. I love close-up card tricks, and Armando performs his right in the center of the audience with a camera trained on him inches from his fingers to show his skills on two giant screens.

Banacheck’s mentalism baffled the audience and me as he reeled off Social Security and driver license numbers at high speed, and when we all gasped at his incorrect prediction of an animal choice, he instantly stunned us by unzipping the toy elephant to reveal a live dog that one volunteer correctly predicted after another had selected it from a basket of 10 other stuffed animals.

Nathan performed such an astounding rat-a-tat machine-gun delivery of tricks with gorgeous girls in a never-ending variety of illusions that I lost count in the riveting, 9-minute presentation.

Backstage as Criss wound down and prepared for shoulder therapy, we chatted for an hour:

“It’s a fun show, it’s a family show, and I think people who come here don’t expect to see the spectacle and variety and that I’m doing so much material in the show,” Criss told me.

I think people will be surprised and worried that so soon after the surgery and the rehab that’s still continuing that you’re onstage so much. The second thing is a point that Nathan talked to me about earlier. It’s wonderful you’re not only keeping the theater staff and crew employed, but also you’re giving seven people a huge opportunity with time onstage to demonstrate the best of what they do. That’s pretty impressive.

Click to enlarge photo

Criss Angel celebrates the fifth anniversary of his Cirque du Soleil show “Believe” at the Luxor on Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013, at a party at Rx Boiler Room in Mandalay Place.

Click to enlarge photo

Criss Angel, with Maestro and Nathan Burton, celebrates the fifth anniversary of his Cirque du Soleil show “Believe” at the Luxor on Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013, at a party at Rx Boiler Room in Mandalay Place.

Click to enlarge photo

Criss Angel, with fiancee Sandra Gonzalez, celebrates the fifth anniversary of his Cirque du Soleil show “Believe” at the Luxor on Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013, at a party at Rx Boiler Room in Mandalay Place.

Click to enlarge photo

Newly engaged Nathan Burton and Amie Jordan.

We have really, really talented artists who in their own right have been doing this for so many years: honing the skills, developing something completely different than what’s out there. To be able to work with them is not only an honor, but to consider and call them my friends makes it a completely different experience than anything we’ve ever done.

I had a month to put this together and a very limited budget, a week before the surgery and three weeks afterward. Everybody really rolled up their sleeves. There were no egos here; we’re all in this together. We end up having fun doing it, and for a Las Vegas headline show typically that’s not what you get. You get pressure, stress. This was just a pleasure to do this.

You had some negative comments thrown at you when you took off for surgery. People accused you of taking two months off and everybody would be out of a job. They didn’t realize that you were making sacrifices and coming back with your own show to keep people working.

I haven’t really talked about. One of the things that I feel as an artist and as somebody who has been really blessed, I feel it’s my obligation and my responsibility to take care of those who take care of me. Without them, I couldn’t do the show. Without me, they could still go off to work and do stuff because there are other artists, but I just feel like we’re in it together.

Everybody here really worked together so wonderfully. It was unspoken, but we could have all been out of a paycheck for 3 to 6 months.

Typically in a show, it takes weeks to prep it. Here we did it in two weeks at the same time as unlearning everything we all knew about “Believe.” They had to forget everything they knew automatically. Everything is completely different from lighting to computer cues to music to effects. Nobody could have ever done that this fast.

I’m really amazed because the audiences are standing up at the end, cheering, applauding and just having a really great time.

(Such a good time that Nathan, who was chosen to headline “China’s Got Talent,” decided to pop the question to girlfriend and assistant Amie Jordan, who winds up atop a supercharged suspended snowmobile in an amazing reveal sequence. He hopes that they’ll marry in September and go off on tour together.)

Let’s go through the rundown of the show.

First thing is we have the preshow animation with the ushers before I come on with 120 birds flying into the theater. You can hear gasps from the audience when they see me all strapped up with my arm, so I share a little bit about my surgery and even show a video clip with the first 8 seconds of surgery before it gets too much.

Nathan kicks off with his really fast act. We took the highlights of his normal 90 minutes and jam-packed the best into 10 minutes, winding up with the amazing reveal of Amy on the snowmobile, which makes it literally snow right through the theater.

We have a comedy bit with Nathan’s ex-girlfriend that leads into Jason Byrne or Tony Clark’s bird-manipulation act. I make Krystyn appear from a painting. Then she does the upside-down straightjacket hanging over the audience and goes right into the Houdini metamorphosis with a wall of fire. I’ve never given permission for anybody to do that with me.

I have been working with her for a couple of years. She was on “Believe,” and I really believe that she has the ability to be very successful. She didn’t want to do it at first, but we talked about doing something provocative and different, so I taught her those. She’ll go onto bigger things with them later. Krystyn is 23 this weekend and has her entire future ahead of her as a headline magician.

Armando then is right in the audience with his card tricks, and that leads to the greatest mentalist of all, Banacheck, with his incredible and unbelievable skills. We have two specialty acts with a circus family and their troupe of performing dogs that captivates the audience, plus, Russ Merlin, who has them howling with his masked volunteers.

By then I’ve rested enough to show everybody the brand new opening of “Believe” when we return. I don’t have a firm date yet. I’m ahead of schedule with physical therapy, but the big concern is if I fall or get bumped — I can’t pick up my arm past this point here, so if something like that happens, I can be out for 6 more months. I’m trying to be careful, but the plan is to be back in April.

Will you risk doing the straightjacket ever again?

Well, I think I’m going to come back, I mean in my mindset, I do. I’m obsessed about getting strong again. I walked 3 miles today. I’m doing everything that I have to do. I believe the mind controls the body. I believe that I’m going to come back stronger than I’ve ever been. I think that I’m smarter with understanding what happened to me and what went wrong, and I’m going to avoid that at all costs.

There’s a lot I worry about that goes on backstage, too, the fact that I’m doing this with one hand and I had to learn everything with my left hand. There’s a lot riding on it. Even the brand new “Enigma,” I had to learn everything with my left hand. Everything is strange now — jumping on the table and jumping off the table, throwing a stick left-handed — all of that stuff takes a lot of extra effort.

You had a good and appreciative audience tonight. Nobody was disappointed thinking they were missing out on “Believe.”

No BS; that’s how it’s been since we’ve opened! I don’t know if it’s because it’s new, but when people see me come out with this sling on and all the birds fly over, the reaction is amazing.

As somebody who’s been a big fan of Las Vegas and saw shows back in the 1990s when I didn’t live here, I would come out here. One time I had tickets to go see a magic act, and it was canceled. That devastated me because I paid for a plane ticket, I paid for a hotel, food and the tickets. I was so frustrated.

The fact that I am not canceling my show, the fact that my friends helped me put this together and we’re making it an entertaining and fun show for everyone and that I’m really giving it 1,000 percent even though I have only one arm to use, I think that reads to the audience. I think they really see that it’s reality and that I’m not faking anything.

We had to deal with a major problem and make the best of it, and everybody is happy what we’ve pulled off. I’m the happiest — and now to get really well again and back to normal with two arms.

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.

Follow Vegas DeLuxe on Twitter at Twitter.com/vegasdeluxe.

Follow Sun A&E Senior Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.

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