Show me a man who doesn't like magic acts and I'll turn him into a gerbil. Last night, right across the street from that circusy whiz "Barnum" magician Harry Blackstone and his troupe opened at the Majestic in - and what better name for it - "Blackstone!" With "A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine" and "Peter Pan" practically around the corner, and "Sugar Babies" a few blocks further uptown, the Broadway theater's emphasis on fun and fantasy grows stronger and stronger.
"Blackstone!" has no book and no original music, just a deafeningly amplified small pit band making a racket before each half of the evening and accompanying the various production numbers. What it has mainly is Harry Blackstone, suave son of the famous Blackstone, an heir to his full bag of tricks.
And what a splendid assortment they are! Traditional, with variations, and gussied up with wonderfully gaudy costumes, drops and props. Whether suddenly sprouting a garden of flowers ("The Enchanted Garden," an early favorite according to the son of the creator who started performing in 1899), a child's dream of ancient China or an Arabian Knight, the Majestic stage is always alive.
Besides vanishing birds, rabbits and people, and a dromedary led across the stage just for show, there's a vanishing elephant. A woman (Gay Blackstone, the star's wife) is seemingly bisected in full view by a 36-inch buzz saw that slices through a board beneath her body. Another woman (Becky Garrett) is turned into a tiger in a spinning-cage stunt that was also a high point of "The Magic Show" a few years back. But by contrast the simple, unadorned presentation of "The Extraordinary Floating Lightbulb," in which the suspended bulb leaves the darkened stage to pass into the audience and be circled by a spinning hoop in Blackstone's hands, is the greatest marvel of them all.
It is, however, the neatly-groomed Blackstone himself, with trim mustache and beard and in time-honored fancy evening wear, who holds the show together with his smooth, good-humored, wonderfully hokey patter delivered with the pleasant tones and comforting manner of an experienced practitioner of bedside medical advice from the old school. Not that Harry's old, you understand, but after all this is basically a touring act geared to audiences from all regions.
In the first half, children are enlisted from the audience to take part in a disappearing rabbit stunt; and in the second half, men are summoned to help out with a rope in an escape act.
But you know the formula by now: Sudden floral displays, endless streams of huge and brightly-colored scarves, all tried-and-true material, here dressed to the nines for Broadway. The dancing girls and boys step out to "The Stars and Stripes Forever," all in glittering stars and stripes, of course, or slither about like slaves from a Republic Pictures Ali Baba epic, or else simply people the stage in an array of tricks, the entire business directed and choreographed by Kevin Carlisle.
We've seen it all before, but never better. And although you can't help noticing the quick, eye-distracting movements, hidden figures and such, don't tell me; I never know how it's done.
Blackstone! The Magnificent Musical Magic Show opened on Broadway last night at the Majestic Theater, and if you have kids, better get them there with bells on. If you don't have kids, wear the bells yourself. By the end of the show, there's so much laughing and carrying on that you can't tell the grownups from the kids, anyways.
Harry Blackstone is the son of The Great Blackstone, and he turns out to be - well, a magician. Not just because he makes things appear (like ladies and tigers and a cute little bunny) and disappear (like ladies and elephants and your watch). But because he also makes cares vanish in smoke and pulls laughter from out of a hat. And that's no mean trick, my friends.
Blackstone! is, like it says, a magnificent magic show - and more. It has music, spectacle, comedy, nostalgia, and a refreshingly cornball sense of fun. Not the least of Harry Blackstone's magic is his ability to deliver all the feats of illusion we so dearly love, along with a sense of amused delight at their outrageousness. And our gullibility.
There is something very sweet about the way the great magician preserves the most flamboyant traditions of his art, from the gaudy Oriental and Arabian settings to the folksy hokum of playing card tricks with the rubes.
And there is something downright decent about the respectful way he presents his father's famous magic feats. (Like "The Extraordinary Floating Lightbulb," a classic which had even the cynics in the crowd gasping with wonder.) Without patronizing even the most venerable tricks and illusions, Blackstone pays homage to his predecessors and to the entire history of stage magic.
And what's to patronize, anyway? Damned if I can figure out how he gets that lady out of that locked box, or runs a buzzsaw through her mid-section, or pulls that tiger out of nowhere. For that matter, I'm still goggling at that lightbulb number. Make no mistake about it, these are the creme de la creme of magic acts, and Harry Blackstone is a master of the magical arts.
He is also one of the flashiest performers I've ever seen. His timing (with jokes, as well as with feats of prestidigitation) is formidable, and his sense of rapport with an audience would make graduates of RADA weep with envy.
Two of the most wonderful routines in the show (well, maybe not as wonderful as getting that lady out of the cannon and into that box suspended in air) involve participation from members of the audience, who practically break their necks rushing the stage. In the first instance, he charms a child with the funniest shaggy-rabbit story you ever heard. In the second, he holds a stageful of men at bay (including this guy I actually know!) while he jokes them up and down, lifts their wallets and makes off with their dignity, and sends them back to us as heroes.
In common with most magicians, Harry Blackstone - the son of the original Blackstone - is given to overstatement. Almost every trick in his show "Blackstone!" which opened last night at the Majestic Theater, is labeled "extraordinary" or "incredible." The show itself is subtitled "The Magnificent Musical Magic Show." The entertainment is not magnificent, it is only peripherally musical, but it is magic - and the magician clearly deserves the exclamation point. Blackstone is a master of his profession. Because the Majestic is just opposite the St. James, the home of "Barnum," West 44th Street has become a merry circus lane crowded with children on matinee days.
Ever since he took up his father's craft, Blackstone has been touring from coast to coast and from television show to television show. Evidently he knows his trickery, and in this show there is no stinting on the elaborate illusionary devices.
On stage are a disappearing elephant, an appearing tiger, a camel doing a walk-on, and almost as many birds as there are handkerchiefs up the magician's sleeve. For one thing, "Blackstone!" represents a fourfold increase in the employment of animals on Broadway. Does an elephant have a dressing room? Or does Blackstone make him vanish after every performance?
Some of the tricks are spectacular. Blackstone saw his wife in half, pushing her torso through a large noisy buzz saw. He also levitates a woman and fires one out of a cannon into a locked box hanging high over the stage. Why are females always the objects of male magic? Perhaps it is time that the women's movement investigated that issue.
A few of the artifices are small and sleight-of-hand. One of the most clever is a bright lightbulb that appears to dance in midair. Blackstone encircles it with a ring in order to show that it is unattached to strings or wires, and then sends the bulb looping like a yo-yo over the heads of the theatergoers.
This is very much an audience show, and the audience is encouraged to participate. Blackstone welcomes volunteers, and then he mocks them - for their awkwardness on stage, their mode of dress and for the ease with which he picks their pockets and upsets their equilibrium. Some of this is in the spirit of fun and some of it, frankly, is in questionable taste.
At every performance, the magician - as his father did before him - invites a youngster on stage and gives him a bunny rabbit. However, he teasingly delays the gift, at one point turning the bunny into a box of chocolates. It would be easy for a small child to become annoyed. Happily for Blackstone, the 5-year-old at the performance I attended was a good sport - as was his mother.
Blackstone lacks the charm of Doug Henning. As a Broadway venture, this show is not in a class with "The Magic Show." It is a slick, touring vaudeville entertainment, with the accent on magic. Between tricks there are dancing interludes - everything from patriotic marches to Arabian Nights harem-scarum.
The magician restlessly changes his costumes - some of the spangled variety might bring a tear of envy to the eye of Liberace - but never alters his pose. He exudes brashness and confidence. The dialogue is along the order of "Let me show you a miracle. Of course it's impossible. That's why we do it." Blackstone never falters.
Given the ground rules, one can enjoy this magic act - and be bamboozled by the mysteries. I am still puzzling over Blackstone's buzz-sawed wife. The show is directed and choreographed by Kevin Carlisle. One assumes that he was in charge of the chorus. The "magic direction" is by Charles Reynolds, but no one would dare tell Blackstone what to do. He might make you disappear.