Thursday, July 7, 2016 | 4:22 p.m.
Criss Angel wants it. He wants it so badly. He wants to be the biggest, baddest, greatest magician in the history of recorded time, space and dimension.
He wants that so bad he can feel it, and watching him impose his will on his audience at “Mindfreak Live!” at Luxor, you feel it, too.
“Are you ready!!” he calls from the stage. “I can’t hear you!!” Always with the shouting! This is commanding the audience’s attention in the most undiluted fashion, and Angel’s fans are eager to rise and shout right back.
But if you’re among the fans of a more nuanced experience than this Goth-rock-magic show, you’ll brace at this approach — and probably wish you’d worn earplugs.
Today, Criss Angel is indeed great at delivering large-scale magic. Whether he is the greatest ever, or even the greatest on the corner of the Strip and Tropicana Avenue, is an impossible statement in the subjective and derivative world of illusion. What is certain is the Luxor headliner’s firebrand approach is entirely a matter of taste.
Angel is back with a visually dazzling and sonically powerful production that, had it been unleashed in 2008, would have made his life immeasurably easier. If nothing else, “Mindfreak Live!” should finally lay to rest the original production of “Believe,” which never took hold until Angel assumed a central creative role in his partnership with Cirque du Soleil.
As both sides soon discovered in an often painful realization, the magic show at Luxor would need to survive as an Angel vehicle or not at all.
The result is Angel is more than eight years into a 10-year contract with Cirque (primarily as a promotional partner) that ends in November 2018. Regardless of your opinion of Angel’s collection of ambitious illusions and acts, his is a Las Vegas success story.
At the center of that saga is the unbending desire from the superstar magician to position himself — at times, literally — as the top magician working today. Angel’s drive is his great strength, as he simply refuses to gear down.
During his show, and elsewhere, we are consistently reminded of his TV success, the reach of his Internet presence and his still-formidable worldwide following. “It took me 18 years to become an overnight success,” is the oft-repeated line, placing the Angel timeline in context. He could add that it also took eight years to deliver his greatest-hits show to the Strip.
Angel’s new show impresses in ways that are sonic rather than subtle, and are principally loud, proud and powerful.
In one segment, Angel saws a woman in half (well, two halves) on a metal table facing the audience with a matching metal blade. Sparks fly from the stage amid screeches and screams, and afterward Angel remarks that he “goes through a lot of women,” an effective joke as it has more than one meaning.
For additional, and required, comic counterbalance, there are Penny Wiggins (long Psychic Tanya in Amazing Johnathan’s stage show) and Mateo Amieva. Their shared idolatry of Angel can seem a little overbearing (like, when Wiggins almost faints when Angel kisses her late in the show), but if taken as satire, is pretty funny.
Also tucked into the show is a comic moment from “Believe,” when a female audience member is invited onstage to select among a dozen of Angel’s motorcycles. Every time I have seen this act, the woman grabs Criss’ butt, either when the two hug hello or walk toward those silver bikes. Never fails.
But, seriously, give Angel credit for keeping himself in great shape.
Still remarkably fit at age 48 and performing a more physically challenging show than ever, Angel is left hanging upside down high above the stage after a remarkably swift straitjacket escape. He performs the familiar routine in which he is covered in sheet, hands exposed, and when the sheet is pulled clear, Mr. Mindfreak is seated in the audience (and on this night, he reappeared next to Tony Orlando).
Those who have seen multiple magic shows in Vegas, or anywhere, will somehow recognize these scenes from other productions.
Angel has frequently targeted rival illusionists for copping his act; honestly, this genre of entertainment is so borrow-centric that expecting something entirely original is folly. Where Angel does achieve something that is actually mind-freaky is at the end, rising in levitation over a ladder, around the stage and inside a metal sphere. He worked for months on this act and finally slid it into the show a week before opening.
The subtext of this show is Angel’s family and personal life.
His son’s struggles with leukemia is brought to the stage as he announces the Johnny Crisstopher Charitable Foundation H.E.L.P event Sept. 12 in that theater. Photos of little Johnny and other children suffering from cancer and similarly menacing diseases are shown on the big screens, and Chloe Crawford is depicted as a cancer patient, arriving in a wheelchair and her head wrapped in gauze.
Crawford, listed as the show’s co-star and who performs one act in the show, rises from that seat, and the moment is undeniably powerful. For those who arrived expecting a terrific night of magic on the Strip, it might be a little too heavy.
But that’s how it is with Criss Angel. No ambiguity here. He’s full-tilt, all the time, pressing the boundaries of his art and working himself to a point of exhaustion.
“Mindfreak Live!” is the show that will take him to the tape in Las Vegas, having ended this run in far better condition than when he started.