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THEATER / BACKSTAGE

Mashed-up 'Mindfreak'

Criss Angel's Vegas spectacle is about 'demons in my head, the good that's out there,' angels, love, lust. Oh, and did he forget to mention: Cirque?

October 12, 2008|Chris Lee | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — Criss ANGEL seemed at once exhausted and totally keyed up, happy but sad, frustrated yet full of characteristic bluster, and more than anything else, mad.

Minutes after the curtain had fallen on the debut performance last month of "Criss Angel: Believe," his Cirque du Soleil-produced multimedia magic extravaganza that is scheduled to run for the next 10 years at the Luxor Hotel & Casino, the magician settled into a sofa in his Olde English-meets-goth-decorated dressing room and tried to make sense of his jumble of emotions.

The show's "soft opening" had been intended to help fine-tune "Believe" in the buildup to its official unveiling on Halloween. And by rights it should have been the end of the rainbow for Angel, the fruition of a passion project for the rock-star-famous bad boy illusionist and master escape artist -- a celebrity-canoodling tabloid mainstay who also directs, co-produces and stars in the "street magic" series "Mindfreak" on A&E. But with the night's performance marred by technical glitches and the omission of two significant illusions, he felt it had not been all it could be. (Especially contrasted against Angel's 2007 press conference to announce "Believe," when he said it would redefine "what magic is and can be.")

"The audience was obviously entertained by it," he said, matter of factly. "They experienced something we're offering that no other show is offering. But from a technical standpoint, because of the way I am, a perfectionist. . .

"I think we've got a lot of work ahead of us," he said.

A slow-developing routine

By ANGEL'S estimation, he spent 15 years prepping the show, innovating groundbreaking "demonstrations" (he never refers to his illusions as "magic tricks"), suffering setbacks and myriad sour deals before making good on his original idea. The highly technical show features a surrealistic mash-up of death-defying stunts, animatronic rabbits, dancers in macabre costumes, dizzying filmic special effects, aerial acrobatics and, of course, magic.

Not the kind of thing you'd necessarily associate with a guy who created his brand identity dangling, impaled by giant fishhooks from a helicopter; getting run over by a steamroller in a bed of broken glass; and surviving a detonated crate of C-4 explosive.

After he tried to develop the show for a Broadway run and with various other casinos, "Believe" finally took shape when he entered into a partnership with Cirque du Soleil and the Luxor's parent company, MGM Mirage Resorts, which sunk a reported $100 million into the production. The Long Island-born magician is credited as its "co-writer, illusions creator and designer, original concept creator and star."

"This show is about my life," Angel said. "It's 'Alice in Wonderland.' It's 'The Wizard of Oz.' 'Mindfreak.' It's about the demons in my head, the good that's out there, the angels and love and lust -- all that stuff mixed up."

Empirically speaking, "Believe" also exists as the merger of two high-profile brands: the man considered the most forward face of modern magic, a burgeoning entertainment mogul in his own right (he is developing a quintet of new TV shows, a movie and recently launched a streetwear line) and the cultural juggernaut of Cirque, whose Las Vegas-based productions have come to dominate nongambling entertainment in Sin City.

Cirque has never put its clout behind an individual performer this way before. And the troupe made a counterintuitive choice in hiring "Believe's" co-writer and director Serge Denoncourt to bring it to the stage. "I'm well known in Quebec to be stubborn and hands-on and a control freak," Denoncourt said. "As well, everybody knows I hate magic. I'm trying to direct a show for people who love it but also for people like me who hate magic."

Yet with just days until the show's grand opening, with more than $5 million in advance tickets sold, there still seems to be a fundamental disconnect between Angel and Cirque's top brass about precisely what the show is supposed to be -- and, more important, who deserves credit. Gilles Ste-Croix, Cirque du Soleil's senior vice president for creation, sounded determined to put a different spin on Angel's achievements.

"It's a Cirque show where he is the main character," Ste-Croix said by phone from Montreal last month. "We used this man who has the following of a star, but in our scenario. It's not MGM with Criss Angel, it's MGM with Cirque du Soleil. Because he is the main artist, we had him participate with input."

To underscore his Cirque-centric viewpoint, Ste-Croix added: "Maybe, you know, if Lance Burton or David Copperfield had said, 'We want to do a show,' we would have considered it. We thought about the opportunity with Criss and said, 'We can do this.' It's as simple as that, how we ended up with Criss on the marquee."

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