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October 16, 2018

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Illusion is elusive in Angel’s ‘Believe’


Justin M. Bowen

Criss Angel and Cirque du Soleil officials discuss the latest Cirque addition to Las Vegas during a Friday news conference. The show premiered Friday night after several weeks of preview performances.

'Believe' sneak preview

Criss Angel and crew offer a first look at the new Cirque Du Soleil production, "Believe."

Criss Angel interview at 'Believe' premiere

Robin Leach gets an exclusive interview with Criss Angel on the night of the "Believe" premiere at the Luxor, Oct. 31.

Robin Leach with Celebs

Robin Leach interviews celebrities on the "Black Carpet" at the premiere of "Believe" inside Luxor.

Criss Angel, Cirque and Believe

Criss Angel and Cirque du Soleil hold a press conference Friday in preparation for the premiere of Launch slideshow »

Criss, Holly on the 'Black Carpet'

Criss and Holly. Launch slideshow »
Click to enlarge photo

Illusionist Criss Angel performs in the Cirque du Soleil show "Believe," which officially opened Friday night at the Luxor.

Click to enlarge photo

Cirque du Soleil spent a reported $100 million on "Criss Angel: Believe" and signed the magician to a 10-year run in the specially built theater at the Luxor.

If You Go

  • What: “Criss Angel: Believe”
  • When: 7 and 10 p.m. Friday through Tuesday (dark Wednesday and Thursday)
  • Where: Luxor
  • Admission: $59-$160; 262-4400,
  • Running time: About 95 minutes
  • Audience advisory: Simulated violence, pyrotechnics, strobe lights, smoke effects, live birds, dead rabbits and loud music. Disappointing gift shop.

No wonder.

That — among its many, more obvious failings — is the fatal flaw at the heart of “Criss Angel: Believe.”

There’s just no wonder in it.

In fact, there’s shockingly little magic to be seen in this much-anticipated Cirque du Soleil spectacle constructed around a celebrity magician. No shock, no awe, precious little surprise, even.

Cirque throws everything in its considerable arsenal of stage genius at Angel — the expected array of lush, loud music, expert dancers and aerialists, lavish settings and boundary-breaking special effects, all intended to amaze.

The single most amazing thing about “Believe” is that it’s still so boring.

For a reported $100 million, Cirque has bought itself its first bona fide bomb.

Angel, who is signed to a 10-year contract, hasn’t managed to make all that money vanish completely, however. Cirque makes everything look and sound sumptuous, of course. The 1,600-seat purpose-built theater at the Luxor makes a promising first impression, with its gilded rococo proscenium arch and decadently luxe crimson curtains.

After the customary preshow clowning, the show kicks off abruptly with an intentional false start, a very loud video infomercial for Angel’s A&E TV series “Mindfreak.” And then Angel materializes, descending slowly from the ceiling in Jesus pose. (He’s been outdone by Cher in the Big Entrance category).

Angel romps through the audience, shrieking “Mindfreak!” and “I’m tellin’ you, this is gonna be CRAZY!” and “I swear to you, this is just nuts!” in his Lawn Guyland accent, slapping hands and accepting gifts, including lots of stuffed animals and a homemade banner with ironed-on images of Angel’s cat Hammy and other significant Angel icons on a white bedsheet. (This turns out to be a rather obvious plant.)

The video run-through of Angel’s greatest stunts — being crushed by a steamroller, cutting himself in half, etc. — serves only to show up how puny and paltry his stuff looks on stage. He’s got nothing without postproduction editing.

“Believe” contains very few of the sort of extreme stunts and illusions Angel made his name on. At one point, he invokes his beloved late father, and then taunts death. “What you’re lookin’ at is 6 million volts,” Angel shouts, and, costumed in skintight reflective foil, he tosses a baked potato into an enormous, buzzing and hissing Tesla coil to demonstrate its deadliness.

BOOM! Blackout. Cut to video of Angel, gruesomely burned, one-eyed, his face bubbling like bacon, being wheeled away on a gurney as actors scream in horror offstage.

Then Angel — and the show — plunges into fever dream, an enactment of Angel’s interior Inferno.

His delirium involves ascents and descents and births and deaths, depicted by squads of dancing bunnies and moles. And there’s a continual struggle over his usually shirtless bod between his stage assistants, Kayala, an angelic ever-receding woman in white and Crimson, a devouring, demonic black woman.

(Not even going there.)

Angel’s near-death fantasies are dominated by bunnies (a wink to rumored girlfriend Holly Madison?). Big bunnies, small bunnies, robot bunnies and giant puppet bunnies, good bunnies and bad, bad bunnies. The show’s single most memorable image involves a giant severed bunny head that rolls over and tap dances on its ears.

There’s also a gorgeous scene in which a field of giant red California poppies gradually gathers, floating down and sprouting up and putting his demons to sleep. An onstage tornado blew away.

The entire hallucination sequence is a Frankenstein quilt of undigested chunks of “Donnie Darko,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Alice in Wonderland,” and even Pink Floyd’s “Animals” album. At one point, after rising from his gurney, Angel actually says, “And you were there, and you were there — and you tried to kill me. And (to the audience) you were there!”

Camp followers — the types who relish gems of unintentional badness like “Showgirls” and well, “Springtime for Hitler” — are advised to get tickets soon.

As I said, magic-lovers are shortchanged. We get a remote-writing trick involving a suspended locked box, a flock of doves that appear and fly above audience, some piddling flashpaper fire-work, lots of clever screenplay, with Angel popping in and out of the projected images, and an enjoyably gory set piece with Angel sawed in half by a chainsaw-wielding bunny.

All his illusions are obscured by flashing strobes, clouds of fog and other standard methods of distraction and misdirection. The Fright Dome Halloween haunted house at Circus Circus employed many of the same effects, to better result, for $35.

A charmless mook, Angel is a rudimentary stage performer — he’s barely believable playing himself. But those who are hoping for an in-person look at his gleaming tattooed torso will get their money’s worth.

Many of the Cirque set pieces seem familiar by now: There’s a scaled-down version of the vertical wall-walking from “Ka,” and the onstage rock guitarist and drummer, too. A quartet of frantic clowns serve as Angel’s bumbling “Ushers,” and a pair of grotesque living dolls are tarted up like Victorian prostitutes. Aerialists sport angel wings, and the squad of dancers is ingeniously costumed as bunnies, rats, moles and spiny reptiles, although their stiff-legged, copy-“Cats” moves suggest seizures in progress.

The music, usually an enchanting, unifying element of Cirque productions, is a disappointment, a banal, bombastic mishmash of “Carmina Burana” melodrama, mix-tape exoticism and mock-rock opera.

The incoherent evening is haunted by a recurring Magritte-like image of an empty gilded picture frame. And that, finally, is the truest metaphor for “Criss Angel: Believe”: a gorgeous golden structure surrounding a void.

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