El Mago Pop Broadway Review. Antonio Diaz’s Magic, Charm and Hype.

This latest magic show to land fleetingly on Broadway  stars Antonio Diaz, a boyishly charming 37-year-old Spaniard who we’re told was “born into a humble family in a small town on the outskirts of Barcelona” and is now “the most successful illusionist the continent of Europe has ever produced.” 

Hype of course is a standard tool in the magician’s trade, but it’s a tad out of whack in “El Mago Pop.” Before we even get to any of Diaz’s entertaining mix of sleight-of-hand, disappearing acts, and dizzying illusions of flying, levitating or going backwards in time,  we get ten minutes or so of self-promotional video – this, in a show that ran only about seventy minutes at the performance I attended. (It’s in that opening video, which is a combination of animated and live action, that we get the line about his humble beginnings. The line about his unprecedented success is fitted into the marquee of the Ethel Barrymore Theater.) And throughout the rest of the show, Diaz also periodically promotes a couple of his El Mago Pop products, as well as his Netflix TV series “Magic for Humans: Spain” 

The irony of the show’s self-aggrandizement is that much of Diaz’s appeal lies in his down-to-earth informality. Speaking in a heavily-accented English, he delivers no over-the-top patter; he doesn’t introduce any of his effects as being, say, the most death-defying attempt to overcome the laws of physics in human history. He dons no top hat or cape.  He wears a t-shirt, jeans and a pair of sneakers – one of which he keeps on losing. Indeed, that is among the most disarming of his tricks. He keeps on retrieving the sneaker in the oddest of places, like the bottom of a tank of water — at which point we realize the sneaker had somehow disappeared from his foot yet again while we weren’t looking.

As personable as he seems to be, I started to suspect that his week-long stay at the Barrymore is primarily an effort at branding, rather than at tailoring a show for a Broadway audience. He can now say “direct from Broadway” at, for example, the 2,800-seat theater he’s just acquired in Branson, Missouri.   I recognized several of the tricks Diaz performs on Broadway as coming directly from his Netflix series – such as when he smashes a Rubik’s Cube into a pile of M&Ms. There is also one involving a watch, and two people picked from the audience. One person winds the watch without looking at it; the other mentions a specific time. We then see the first person has wound the watch to that precise time.

A trick like that would be lost on the audience, of course, if we couldn’t see the watch. This helps explain why video plays a large part of the Broadway show; there are two videographers who trail Diaz, and project close-up live video on a screen on the stage. Videos  are also presented between each illusion (presumably in part to give Diaz and his cast members time to set up for the next one.)  These are occasionally biographical; one is about his meeting physicist Stephen Hawking.

If you’re not willing or able to buy orchestra seats (at a top ticket price of $371), your experience of the show will be largely through the videos. How much would this differ from just watching him on Netflix? (It’s true there is a lot of audience participation, but I didn’t see any audience members chosen from the mezzanine)

I was able to sit up close, from which I felt the full force of the Vegas-like stage design — the flashing lights, realistic-looking flames, huge spinning wheel, confetti on our heads. But, more happily, I was also afforded  a fairly close-up, naked-eye view of some elaborate, how-did-he-do-that illusions.  There was the time he picked a blonde woman sitting near me in the audience, blindfolded her, asked her to sit on a cube, instructed her to touch her head right after he touched it, and her side after he did, and asked her to lean her head back upon a second cube. But then instead of touching her with his wand, his shadow touched her shadow – but she responded anyway, touching her head, touching her side, leaning back on the second cube.  Now, if you’re one of those magical show skeptics, you might react: Well, she’s a plant; they had this all timed. But how would that explain what happened next? Diaz took away both cubes, and left her suspended in mid-air.

Right outside the Barrymore is a theater poster with the words “It’s time to believe in magic again.”  It’s an ad – for “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.”   One might claim that “El Mago Pop” can’t compete with the extraordinary special effects in that show, or, for that matter, with the ones in “Back to the Future.” But the comparison made me wonder: Could Antonio Diaz someday return with a play written specifically for Broadway, one that incorporates magical effects but tells a complete story?

El Mago Pop
Ethel Barrymore through August 27
Running time: About 70 minutes
Tickets: $102 to $371
Conceived, scripted and performed by Antonio Diaz
Directed by Mag Lari, lighting design by Dani Bartomeu, sound design by Jordi Mateo, graphic and video design by Pep Marti 
Additional cast: Carla Capellas, Jaume Gomez, Silvia Arocha, Paula Costa, Darwin Alvarez, Lidia Checa
Photos by Emilio Madrid

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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