Friday, Oct. 29, 2010 | 2:12 p.m.
Just in time for its second anniversary this Halloween weekend, Mindfreak superstar Criss Angel has magically transformed his Cirque du Soleil show Believe at the Luxor. In fact, with a total of 40 amazing illusions, the show has now become a high-powered, high-speed rock arena magic spectacular. The dancers have vanished, the dark tale of tricks gone awry has disappeared, and in their place, Criss has conjured Mindfreak on steroids live onstage.
Believe now speeds at the pace of a roaring locomotive and has reached the point Criss wanted from the very beginning. He has only two more illusions to work into it before a gala relaunch party set for early in the New Year to coincide with his 1,000th show.
In changing the show over a two-year period -- more so than any other production on The Strip -- Criss has added entertainment with a capital E and brought live magic illusions as far forward into the future as is humanly possible. Yes, 100 years ago, magicians did vanish, levitate, disappear and reappear. But Believe now has illusion methods that are revolutionary within the art. In fact, most of the illusions in Believe could never be seen in any other show because of the technical and technological needs required.
All the drastic and dramatic changes have the full blessing of the Cirque du Soleil top brass. I understand that founder Guy Laliberte and his head honchos Daniel Lamarre and Gilles Ste. Croix approved every change during their frequent visits to watch the changes. Said Criss: “Our relationship has never been stronger. We always wanted the show to be better, and it will continue to grow and evolve as a living organism. I was humbled by the experience but grew both as an artist and more importantly as a person from the need to change it.”
Today, the show has become a jet-propelled rocket ride with a nonstop barrage of incredible illusions that reflects his mind-blowing Mindfreak illusions. There’s nothing easy or passive about this production; in fact, it’s the complete opposite. It’s packed from start to finish, and you marvel at where Criss finds the energy for the frenetic workout of the never-ending illusions that barrel forward nearly every 2 minutes from the opening to the closing.
Criss vanishes in split seconds from the stage and turns up in the audience. Yes, Criss walks down from the ceiling just as he did above the Luxor. Criss swaps places in the blink of an eye, disappearing from one spot and impossibly reappearing in another in a different part of the theater. His levitations are romantic and extraordinary, and the “birth” of a beauty from inside a horizontal painting with nothing above or below is too amazing for words. Transformations in various places and sizes, along with the premonitions with the audience, also defy logic.
There are close-up camera images to baffle even further and exploding fire and pyrotechnics to add to the amazing theatrics and effects. The night I attended a week ago, the audience was on its feet cheering, screaming and giving him rock superstar standing ovations, a far cry from the beatings critics doled two years ago.
To better understand the show’s history and evolution to this point, I met with Criss at his secret warehouse here in Las Vegas. Its anonymous location is well shielded behind other industrial park buildings and guarded under incredible security. If you don’t have the same fingerprints for the recognition infra-ray readers as Criss does, you can’t even budge the first door.
The 30,000-sqare-foot building is where his business empire is headquartered, with administrative and executive offices along with a fabrication department responsible for constructing the illusions seen on television and in Believe. He even has storage for every trick, prop and video he’s ever used all kept under perfect temperature controls.
His merchandise department is growing so fast that he will probably buy another warehouse just for the Criss Angel magic kits now in 40,000 stores including Walgreens, Wal-Mart, Toys R Us and CVS. Sales have been astronomical, and he has a new 30-minute TV program Ultimate Secrets filmed at the Luxor that starts airing on Thanksgiving. The manufacturers and distributors of his magic line told me that they are projecting $120 million in sales in its first year.
This was the first time that Criss has ever permitted media inside, and I did my best with my own digital camera for this Vegas DeLuxe world exclusive. (Criss, incidentally, also gave me an exclusive tour of his new castle home Serenity over the summer.) Criss, who’d broken blood vessels in his right eye while spinning in a straitjacket three days earlier, wore sunglasses to cover the injury as we talked and explored the sprawling two-story facility. He sat behind an intriguing clockwork magic desk with moving gears under glass. It could have been the most intriguing and distracting piece of misdirection ever conceived, but I remained focused on the interview.
Robin Leach: The 1,000th show is coming up, and somehow you’ve managed a whole new production from top to bottom, engineering a 100 percent change while the old show was being retired.
Criss Angel: This show is constantly evolving and changing, so it will continue to do that until the very last show, which is another eight years from now. But Believe itself is completely a different show since the moment we did our dress rehearsal. There are almost 40 illusions in the show, more magic than any other show with illusions you won’t see anywhere else. There are only seven things you can do in magic, make something vanish and disappear, rip and restore, but ultimately the level of sophistication we’re bringing to the audience with each performance really employs all the new technologies. We’ve embraced the history of magic and created the most revolutionary types of illusions and demonstrations available today. People just won’t see what I do in my show anywhere else in the world.
RL: Please explain why it took so long to make the changes of converting what was a Cirque show into a Mindfreak show. Why does magic, the building and creating of illusions become such a time-consuming process? The regular person is going to say, well you’ve certainly changed it, but why weren’t these there at the beginning? Just how long does the process take from creating an idea to executing it?
CA: It can be very quick if you do what’s already been done before. You can just go to a magic shop or magic builder and buy what most magicians do, but that’s not what I’m about. With Mindfreak on television and Believe live, I want to bring things that people have never seen before. That process is very difficult. It’s very challenging, and you never know how long it’s going to take -- months or years. It’s a process of evolution: taking a concept, working out the method in your mind, putting it on paper, then making a model of it. Then when that seems to be developed at its furthest point, then try to do garbage bag tests. It’s all in phases.
For example, the straitjacket act was taken out of my show about a year ago because we wanted to move it to the center of the theater with me hanging right over the audience eight rows back from the stage 50 feet up, five stories high, and you think, “Oh, it’s not a big deal.” Remember, though, we are in the Luxor, and because it’s over the audience, it took so much time to get the permits, to do the engineering, to fabricate the mechanics. The process to provide an incredible experience with revolutionary illusions that are going to be as safe as humanly impossible to the audience and me is an extraordinary undertaking.
The process is always different. There are things that I think are going to be quicker, and they take longer, and then there are things that I think are going to take two years because of permits and pyrotechnics. So a lot of things that I wanted to do in the very beginning we weren’t able to do. Now, though, all but two pieces are in the show, one of which will be in next week, and the other in one month.
The first is an amazing piece with a lot of eye candy that we will call a throwback to Fantasy Factory. The other is with my skeleton motorcycle, which is called "The Enemy" that everybody saw on Mindfreak this season. I’m going to produce impossible conditions onstage for its appearance and disappearance. I’m very excited with what I came up with, and we’re fabricating it as we speak. Nobody will ever believe what we’ve achieved and how we did it.
RL: These 40 illusions -- are any of them from your original show? What have you added? What have you taken away?
CA: In the original show, the concept was to tell the story. I think that concept and that show would have worked fantastically for somebody else other than me. People wanted Mindfreak. People wanted to see what we do on television. That’s the rule of theater. It doesn’t matter what anybody thinks; it’s what the audience thinks and wants. As an artist, a live performer, I have to be onstage and in tune with what the audience is thinking and saying to me, and that’s the direction that I went.
I was very fortunate that Cirque a year ago said, “Criss, here are the keys, you’re the director of the show now, you’re the writer of the show.” They gave me full reign to do that, and the results are amazing. I’m giving the audience more of me and more of what they see in Mindfreak. Now it’s an experience seeing incredible demonstrations with me. You’re seeing things that will really make you laugh, things that will excite you, things that are scary and very dangerous. I’ve also brought some micro magic to the show, things that people have seen me do on TV and now can see close-up live themselves.
I take five razor blades, show them to be sharp, and each one of those go into my mouth. I actually just cut myself a couple of days ago. You can see a magician take needles or razor blades, but the method I use, it’s not a prop, it’s not fake razor blades, this is completely legitimate. I put my life in danger every time I do some of these demonstrations, whether it’s in the audience hanging upside down or on the stage. We now have a lot of dangerous stunts where anything can go wrong. In fact, I have fallen two stories and landed on the stage, so I am well aware of the dangers.
I put it all on the line! I think that’s where I get my adrenaline rush and my enthusiasm as a performer. I have to be focused and on my game, especially because people are spending their hard-earned money to come see me, so between the incredible cast and myself, we try to provide the best entertainment so that they want to keep coming back. And now they are.
I really shook it up, and I completely changed the pacing of the show. Now it moves like a rock concert. There are tons of incredible illusions in there. It’s not just about one, it’s about all of them creating a complete experience. The new version of the cutting-in-half routine is much more dramatic and visible and now has even a bigger surprise ending. I basically redid everything. It’s really about the entire show, from beginning to end. I’ve been crazy about new illusions, but I’ve been crazy about the entire experience to have a common thread that weaves it together.
RL: What is left for you now?
CA: I’m a perfectionist, so there’s a lot left for me. I’ll never achieve perfection, so for me it’s about making Believe the best possible show right to the very last show. We’re also talking possibly doing another season of Mindfreak -- No. 7. I’m trying to do a different concept with it for this season because it’s really difficult to be dealing with so many projects at the same time. I’m really interested in doing a series of quarterly specials.
That would allow me to have my presence with Mindfreak on television year round and allow me to do other projects and focus on my live show and tackle other projects. I want to get involved with one entertainment medium that I have not yet explored. I have a lot of ideas for things I want to do.
RL: So are you completely comfortable with Believe now?
CA: I’ve been a live performer longer than I’ve been a television performer. For me, live is where it’s at. When I take that stage each and every show, I’m honestly excited to do the show. I love doing it because I’m so proud of the show. I don’t think everyone in the world will love every part of it, but now everybody agrees we have an incredibly entertaining show unlike anything the world of magic has produced before. We sell more tickets for this show than any other magic show in the world.
My whole mantra on this was to evolve and develop this show into this unbelievable experience. It’s because of hard work and passion and Cirque’s support that I was able to add, develop and transform the show as its writer, as its director, as the creator and performer. I’m just very pleased that I have always had the attitude of the passion and the drive, the perseverance to figure things out. Every show evolves because it has its own obstacles and challenges.
Cirque is not about following the trend, it’s not about something that’s already been done. Cirque is all about pushing the envelope and trying to explore and trying to create an experience that is not available to the public, and that’s why Cirque has been so successful. All of their shows evolved, developed and transformed because you can have it as much as you want in your mind, but until you have an audience in front of you, you don’t really have an idea of what works and what doesn’t.
I had all of the best intentions with Believe from day one. We all did. In some ways, I had to understand and grow and become stronger. As an artist and as a human being, the opportunities that Felix Rappaport from the Luxor gave me, what Cirque gave me and, most of all, what the public gave me ensure I will always work my hardest to provide the very best performance that I am capable of giving. Without them, I would still be back home in Long Island in my mom’s den dreaming of playing Vegas instead of actually doing it.
RL: When did Cirque give you the reigns to the show?
CA: It was probably about a year ago. I’ll never forget Gilles Ste Croix. He is an amazing talent. We had our differences, but I gained even more respect for him when he came to see the show recently. He said to me, “Criss, I was wrong, I thought this was a Cirque du Soleil show with Criss Angel, and it’s not. It’s a Criss Angel show with Cirque du Soleil. And him saying that to me validated everything that I was doing. It takes a big person to say something like that, and I respect Gilles more than he will ever know because of that.
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