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Center Stage

Supersizing the magic


“The Illusionists” might seem like a super-sized machine. Versions of the show are playing Broadway, London and elsewhere. Dan Sperry, one of seven magicians coming to Des Moines, tells me the production “looks like the MTV Video Awards.” He and the others pull off everything from card tricks to hair-raising escapes. Each has a distinct look, from mad scientist to goth. There are pyrotechnics, a flying motorcycle and more.

“But actually, you never know what’s going to happen,” Sperry says.

On stage, he says, the interaction is different every time.  Not for nothing is one player called “The Trickster.” He’s the comedian. And as for Sperry (aka, “The Anti-Conjuror”), the primary job is to blow people’s minds. A bit he performed on “America’s Got Talent” ranks among Google’s top 10 searches.

Photo by Joan Marcus The cast of “The Illusionists — Witness the Impossible” from left to right: Aaron Crow, Dan Sperry, Jeff Hobson, Kevin James, Andrew Basso, Adam Trent and Yu Ho-Jin. Civic Center. Des Moines Performing Arts. Fri. Oct. 24 , 7:30 p.m.; Sat., Oct. 24, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.;  Sun. Oct. 25, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.

Civic Center. Des Moines Performing Arts. Fri. Oct. 24 , 7:30 p.m.; Sat., Oct. 24, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.;  Sun. Oct. 25, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.

“But it can never be exactly the same,” Sperry insists. “That’s true for all of us. We’re drawn to creating things that have never been seen before.”

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The man talks about magic in the same self-deprecating way as Penn Jillette, the talkative one in Penn & Teller. Sperry freely admits that “illusionists” depend on old tricks. “It’s all classic material,” he says.  He began trying his hand — or his sleight-of-hand — as a small-town Minnesota boy.

“I played, like, school assemblies,” he says. “And I did simple, everyday stuff. I pulled a coin out of some kid’s ear.”

Before long, though, Sperry was yearning for things that have never been seen before. He developed fresh material and his own style, almost Marilyn Manson. He toured abroad as well as doing TV. Before joining “The Illusionists,” he had a long-running solo show in Times Square.

“It’s like a big adventure,” he says. “Every night, you get fresh adrenaline.”

Part of that pick-me-up is the audience.

“The people we bring onstage, are integral,” explains Sperry. “When an audience member tests a pair of handcuffs or checks that there’s nothing up a man’s sleeve, they prove to everyone that the impossible is happening right now. It’s right before their eyes.”

The setup includes large moveable screens. On these, even folks in the last row can keep tabs on less spectacular stunts. When “The Trickster” shuffles his cards, the screens allow everyone to see him turn a deuce to an ace.

“We take you through peaks and valleys,” Sperry claims. “There’s a real flow to it, with all kinds of suspense.”

Part of the flow is the music, composed and recorded especially for the show. The artist is Nas, a star in hip-hop, but for this he created what Sperry calls “a unique genre,” full of “emotional drive.”  The show travels with a crew of 30 and three semi-trucks of equipment.

Still, Sperry emphasizes, the act always comes down to the magician.

“We don’t have little minions,” he says. “We’ve all got to set up our own special surprises.”

Overheard in the Lobby: This Saturday and next, Iowa Shakespeare Experience again presents “Dracula Evermore.” CV

John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See


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