Mind-boggling ‘Illusionists’ leaves young and old agog at Kennedy Center

Among the surprises: It's howlingly hilarious and inventively kid-friendly.

There are so many superlatives in the ballyhoo for The Illusionists: Direct from Broadway, it could make P.T. Barnum blush: “…the most successful magic show in history…the most outrageous and astonishing acts ever seen on stage…magic of unprecedented proportions…the most incredible illusionists on earth.” Yet the truth is, after watching two full hours of this show at the Kennedy Center, I was so mind-boggled and agog, all the hype seems insufficient.

The Manipulator (Hyunjoon Kim), The Unforgettable (Pablo Cánovas), The Trickster (David Williamson), The Inventor (Kevin James), and The Mentalist (Chris Cox) in ’The Illusionists.’

On stage only through April 28 in the cavernous Opera House, the spectacular touring production feels both Las Vegas–large and living-room intimate: the astonishing acts range from video closeups of sly card tricks to full-scale illusions with apparatus. The cast of five master magicians — each with a distinct persona and performance style — maintains a mesmerizing momentum accentuated by smashingly designed lighting and stunningly synchronized music tracks and sound effects.

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: The Mentalist (Chris Cox), The Inventor (Kevin James), The Unforgettable (Pablo Cánovas), and The Manipulator (Hyunjoon Kim), in ’The Illusionists.’ Photos courtesy of The Illusionists. Not shown: The Trickster (David Williamson).

One of the show’s biggest non-magic surprises is how inventively kid-friendly it is. For some reason I had assumed The Illusionists was aimed only at grownups but no: The audience I saw the show with last night was loaded with families with young children. A dozen or so lucky six- to ten-year-olds got to be in on the act, too, at the behest of avuncular emcee David Williamson (The Trickster), who with simply a tissue napkin, a ring and a rope, or a raccoon puppet could dazzle and flummox the daylights out of young and old alike.

Another surprise: The show is howlingly hilarious, notably the comic patter of wired and goofy Chris Cox (The Mentalist) during his mindreading routines, which had the bewildered house in an uproar of laughter. His sight-gag reveals, ad-libs, and double-entendres throughout (“I ♥ Cox”) were a delight.

Accompanied by a black-clad chorus of dancer-assistants, the nerdy but knowing Kevin James (The Inventor) performs an illusion that sounds gruesome — he chainsaws an assistant in half in plain sight — but what’s most bizarre is all the laughs the act gets.

The suave and droll Pablo Cánovas (The Unforgettable) could beguile with his looks alone, but disappearing into an illusion he says was inspired by being trapped in an elevator, he baffles instead — and then blows the house away by reappearing, instantly transported elsewhere.

The uncannily enigmatic Hyunjoon Kim (The Manipulator) makes sleight of hand the opposite of slight. Never speaking but smiling dryly, he flourishes fanful after fanful of playing cards out of thin air, and what he does with two Rubik’s cubes defies explanation. At the close of the show, he does card tricks in closeup, projected on an overhead screen, that cannot be possible.

I’ve loved magic since I was a kid. Magic tricks were probably my gateway drug to theater. But I came away from The Illusionists with an awe that surpassed the art of deception and touched upon the art of inspiration. “You’re going to make your own magic,” The Trickster encouraged a youngster at one point. The child could not have understood but every adult in the room did. And in that moment I sensed a life meaning in all this legerdemain that might very well be beyond language: It resides simply in staying surprised.

Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes including an intermission.

The Illusionists: Direct from Broadway plays through April 28, 2024, in the Opera House at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets ($35–$169) online, at the box office, or by calling (202) 467-4600 or toll-free at (800) 444-1324.

The program for The Illusionists is online here.

Recommended for ages 7 and up.

COVID Safety: Masks are optional in all Kennedy Center spaces for visitors and staff. Read more about the Kennedy Center’s mask policy here.


The Illusionists

The Trickster: David Williamson
The Inventor: Kevin James
The Mentalist: Chris Cox
The Unforgettable: Pablo Cánovas
The Manipulator: Hyunjoon Kim

Magician Assistant: Claudia James
Dancers: Eloise Harpas, Jesus Sepluveda, Cat Ferrier, Casey Roxas
Production Manager: Travis Pigman
Stage Manager: Jill Golding
Camera: Brystin Ivey
Video: Karl Sargent
Props: Katy Brown
Head Carp: Seth Carne
Wardrobe: Shannon O’donnell
Lighting Designer: Travis Pigman
Director: Jenn Rapp

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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg. Member, American Theatre Critics Association.


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