At the end of his thrilling “Dreams & Nightmares,” David Copperfield talks about how important it is to hold onto a child’s sense of wonder. That, after all, is why we go to magic shows in the first place. (Some might go so far as to say that’s why we go to the theater.) The wonder of Copperfield’s show is that he is able to re-create that sense of wonder. In as technologically sophisticated a world as ours, that is nothing short of miraculous. Nowadays, after all, we come to magic shows not with an eagerness to surrender but with a scientific curiosity, a zeal to “catch” the magician in some slip that will reveal how he does the trick. The tricks Copperfield does are extraordinary. Unlike traditional magicians, who chainsaw women, Copperfield saws himself in half. He and an assistant are enclosed in a box onstage; in seconds, they vanish and reappear in the middle of the audience. One of his more amazing tricks involves a simple piece of Kleenex. He rumples it up, and it flutters like a bird. Then he folds it into a paper flower and abracadabra! (a word, thankfully, he does not use) it becomes a real rose. He performs these tricks standing in the aisle with a video camera transferring them to a large screen onstage. The point is not what he does, but how he does it. Other magicians who have appeared on Broadway have done grandiose tricks, but the effect they have had, at least on me, was: “Ho, hum.”
They had not overcome my entrenched sense that what I saw had more to do with cunning engineering than theater. Not Copperfield. He does everything with a disarming sense of artistry. He moves sometimes with the grace of a dancer, sometimes with the barely contained excitement of a big cat about to pounce. The show is stunningly designed by Eiko Ishioka, who did “M. Butterfly” and won an Oscar for her costumes in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (whose director, Francis Ford Coppola, is billed here as creative adviser). The lighting is, quite literally, marvelous. Copperfield undercuts the intense drama his feats create with a genuine sense of intimacy with the audience. No silk hat. No toreador cape. With his arresting eyes, he needs no such old-fashioned props. Copperfield is a great magician not because he has devised stupefying tricks, but because he understands the audience’s need to be emotionally transported, as well as amused or stumped. How he satisfies this yearning is as mystifying as - and far more important than - the magic itself.
First, a warning: I am a total sucker for magic. From the time when I went in short pants to my first birthday party and was the only kid in the room who didn't even notice that the conjuror had a sleeve, to today, when I am the only New Yorker who doesn't understand how three-card monte works, I am blissfully naive about illusions.
But even that admitted, I am still convinced that the illusionist David Copperfield, who opened his show, "Dreams & Nightmares," at the Martin Beck Theater last night, could fool a coven of witches large enough, and smart enough, to cast those weird sisters in "Macbeth" from here to eternity.
The man is unbelievable. I realize - I'm not a fool, you know - that he doesn't actually hack himself in half with an industrial circular saw, appear in two places virtually at once, change places with women at the drop of a curtain, or fly 'round the stage with an enchanted member of the audience and no visible means of support.
I know that you can't levitate unsuspecting people lured up onto the stage, just as I perfectly well understand that some trickery is involved when you produce a graffito by aleatoric means (Copperfield can look that one up in the dictionary, if he thinks I'm a fool) and then reveal a copy, apparently made previously. (Incidentally, John Gabriel is doing the same trick at the Lambs Theater - does no one copyright these things, or could I buy one? Just asking.)
Yet, unquestionably, Copperfield's "Dreams & Nightmares" is the most classy and sophisticated magic we've seen on Broadway for years and years. And years.
For one thing, Copperfield is a very suave, likable performer, with smooth patter, apparently polished up by playwright David Ives. And clearly the advice proffered by Francis Ford Coppola, listed simply as "Creative Advisor," has been soundly creative.
And although Copperfield obviously doesn't have the raw meat bills of Siegfried & Roy, he has spent a fortune on settings - designed by Eiko Ishioka - and props. This is not your ordinary witch-doctor conjuror in a nightclub. It's a smart show with even a theme - a child growing up with dreams and nightmares - to its name. Yet, when all is said and done, it's the sweet mystery of it all which charms and amazes. It's what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called "that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith."
Of course, although we would never have his aplomb or stagecraft, it is quite possible that given his machinery you or I could actually "perform" some of his tricks.
Even so, taking every possible illusionist credit unfairly away from him, he must be astonishingly nimble and bewilderingly swift. And anyway, who cares? He does it. It happens. Before your very eyes, not just on some tricksy TV screen where you can blow away the Brooklyn Bridge. It's just plain bloody wonderful. Even if it's not to be believed.
The smile is a little glazed; the eyes are ringed in dark circles; the voice is worn at the edges. David Copperfield, the millionaire magician, seems both tired and wired in his Broadway debut, like an airline attendant at the end of a red-eye flight. There’s that same scary, vigilant friendliness of someone who has performed the same tasks so many times that they come automatically, but who knows he can’t turn off the charm until the plane has landed.
Coffee, tea or magic? In “Dreams and Nightmares,” the newfangled, Houdiniesque extravaganza that opened at the Martin Beck Theater last night (and runs through Dec. 29), Mr. Copperfield dispenses jaw-dropping illusions with remarkable efficiency. But this particular brew of sorcery has a warmed-over, synthetic taste, as though it were measured out in leakproof plastic cups.
Mr. Copperfield, who gives about 500 performances a year on stages from Las Vegas to Hong Kong, is a conspicuously hard worker (he’s doing up to 16 shows a week here) with some truly astonishing tricks up the sleeves of the billowing white shirts and batwing turtlenecks he favors.
He can have himself sawed in two and keep both parts of his rail-thin body in twinkling states of animation; he can turn a piece of tissue paper into a dancing, levitating rose; he can fly like Mary Martin in “Peter Pan,” minus the visible wires; he can make himself, his assistants and members of the audience disappear and reappear in impressively assorted ways.
What he cannot conjure up is the spontaneous sense of wonder that is clearly what the show is meant to be about. This despite the fact that Mr. Copperfield has assembled a formidable host of talents to help present himself to the jaded eyes of New York audiences. The show’s credits include the playwright David Ives (described with the ambiguous title of adapter); the movie director Francis Ford Coppola (“creative adviser”), and Eiko Ishioka, the production designer most famous for her work on Mr. Coppola’s “Dracula,” who is here listed, loftily, as the “visual artistic director.”
Yet the show often feels like a lounge act with a runaway budget. Ms. Ishioka’s sets -- flavored with dashes of Dali and de Chirico and built around images of oversize picture frames -- hint at vast thematic ambitions.
But you’re still left with the fact that what these intimidating visual aids surround is a slick but nebbishy guy who urges his viewers to clap their hands in rhythm to the music and who turns out patter with distinct echoes of the Borscht Belt. “You, sir,” Mr. Copperfield says at the beginning of one of the production’s many audience-participation segments. “What’s your favorite wild animal? Not your wife.” Latecomers are singled out for comic rebukes like “Can I get you guys anything? Like a watch?”
Such comments are followed by a self-deprecating, just-kidding smile that suggests, “Hey, I may be a brilliant, fabulously wealthy magician, but I’m also just a nice, normal person like you.”
This aw-shucks attitude, which has been Mr. Copperfield’s stock in trade for nearly two dazzlingly successful decades, accounts for a large part of his appeal. (And make no mistake: that appeal is vast. “Dreams and Nightmares” took in close to $5 million in sales before it opened.)
He’s the skinny, kind of goofy boy down the block who performed card tricks at your daughter’s birthday party and who never shed a certain self-conscious awkwardness, though his fame and riches kept mounting. “I get to live out every dream I had when I was a kid,” Mr. Copperfield announces early in the show. Later, with syrupy cinematic music swelling in the background, he says, “If you believe and want it enough, no dream is impossible.”
To drive home this idea, the production also features a wide-eyed boy to represent the performer’s younger self, home movies of the juvenile Mr. Copperfield and projected photographs of the beloved grandfather who taught him his first card tricks, which the magician says he promised he would use when he hit the big time. (He does so here, with the routine projected by a video camera onto a large screen; curiously, his angular, two-dimensional-seeming physique appears to acquire greater substance in the televised image.)
This may all very well be true. But these sentiments somehow feel laminated now, and their artificiality is underscored by the high-tech production. In fact, all the visual glamour and movie-track sound effects and music (which prominently features Phil Collins) may do a disservice to Mr. Copperfield’s very real skills as a prestidigitator.
What’s being evoked here is a kind of movie in which special effects are a paltry million dollars a dozen. Our associations with those movies automatically distance us from the performer: we confuse what’s happening live with what we remember from the screen. Mr. Copperfield mentions the comfort factor of magic shows, where “everything always comes out all right.”
But you need to feel some tension when the star is bisected by a giant buzz saw or about to walk into a mammoth electric fan. You don’t. And when both ends of the torso of the newly halved Mr. Copperfield are defined by what is unmistakably red cloth, it seems an apt metaphor: the show is bloodless.
Actually, Mr. Copperfield is most appealing when he works the aisles of the theater, performing nifty sleight-of-hand tricks with rings and with a tissue handkerchief. The expressions on the faces of the audience volunteers suggest real delighted amazement. No similar emotions ever cross Mr. Copperfield’s stark, angular face.
The production also features two lithe-bodied, scantily clad female assistants, with whom Mr. Copperfield strikes ballroom dance poses at ungainly length, and who perform a suggestively erotic pas de deux in a segment called “The Voyeur” that would automatically raise the show’s rating to a PG, if Broadway shows had such things.
Their presence brings to mind the automaton-ish chorus girls of Las Vegas. Oh, well. If Las Vegas can create a New York-New York theme palace, it seems only fair that New York should return the compliment.
Performing his “grand illusions” at Broadway’s intimate (by Las Vegas standards, anyway) Martin Beck Theater, magician -- all right, all right, illusionist -- David Copperfield prestidigitates a crowd-pleasing (at some points a crowd-stunning) show that’s already breaking box-office records. The sold-out, limited run will thrill Copperfield’s loyal fans by providing a closer glimpse than any casino could provide, and more than a few skeptics will be transformed into believers.
The production, titled “Dreams & Nightmares,” is a tailored version of Copperfield’s touring show, enhanced for Broadway with a thin narrative line (courtesy of playwright David Ives) and a dramatic visual design by Tony- and Academy Award-winner Eiko Ishioka (“M. Butterfly,” “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”). Both Ives and Ishioka apparently were recruited by Copperfield friend and “creative adviser” for the show Francis Ford Coppola.
A-list overkill? Perhaps. The narrative through-line, some saccharine stuff involving a young actor portraying Copperfield as an awe-struck boy, is more superfluous than grating (though the same can’t always be said for the recorded music, which ranges from syrupy B-movie pabulum to more effective rock and New Age sounds). Ishioka’s contributions mostly involve smoke, light and a giant picture frame that occasionally descends as a backdrop.
All of which matter little when Copperfield gets down to business. In an era when deconstructionists like Penn & Teller and ironic hipsters (Ricky Jay and all of his 52 assistants) have forced traditionalists into the casino cornpone category of Siegfried and Roy, Copperfield makes no apologies for his large-scale trickery. The melodramatic flourishes and pseudo-ballet posing can give the show a retro feel (despite the sci-fi effects and rock-music percussion), but sophisticates smirking at the hambone kitsch would fall right into Copperfield’s trap: The glitzy showmanship is his way of diverting attention. From what? From anything he doesn’t want you to see, and it works time and time again.
With a likable, self-effacing demeanor that rarely comes across in his TV specials, Copperfield leads the audience through nearly two hours of truly mind-boggling illusions. He disappears and reappears, gets cut in half (he’s a supreme contortionist), makes audience members vanish and others levitate. A sealed envelope is opened to reveal a copy of the graffiti just drawn on a large backdrop by an audience volunteer, and rings taken directly off audience fingers somehow become interlocked even though their circles are unbroken (video cameras zoom in for close-ups, the images shown on a large, onstage screen).
Some of the show’s quieter delights come as Copperfield wanders the theater’s aisles, at one point making a wadded-up tissue float and dance mid-air only inches from a giggling volunteer. Although the performer occasionally seemed uncomfortable with the production’s more obviously written narrative, he displayed an easy confidence and rapport with the audience, whether teasing late-comers or recruiting nervous volunteers.
Copperfield climaxes his show with a flying routine, seven years in the making, that defies both logic and visual evidence -- he could probably retire just by selling his secrets to future productions of “Peter Pan.”
Unfortunately, he follows his flight with a brief coda that resurrects the child actor, a ploy that isn’t nearly as moving as Copperfield (or Ives?) wants us to believe. His strong suit is magic, pure and simple (well, pure anyway), and the forced poignance ends “Dreams & Nightmares” on a lackluster note that is perhaps the only thing Copperfield can’t make disappear. Yet.