Criss Angel - Believe
Luxor, Las Vegas
8th October 2008
Reviewed by Steve Evans

I am writing this whilst flying home to the UK from Las Vegas and it answers the question, "what do you do on a plane for ten hours!"

I saw a preview show of 'Believe' so the first thing to say is that I'm not commenting on the finished article which is just as well because, whilst I enjoyed it, as a spectacle it falls someway short of the hype.

On the preview clip I had seen on 'You tube,' Criss Angel had promised “An entertainment experience that was unlike anything the world had every seen”. Well as a spectacle it isn't in the same league as the other Cirque shows in town, it's not the best magic show on offer either and if you are a Carrot Top fan it’s probably not even the best show at the Luxor! Apparently two major illusions are currently missing. These may strengthen the magic but it will take more than that to deliver on Criss' You tube promise.

The pre-show starts in typical Cirque fashion with the four supporting Clowns (dressed in “relaxed” black suits – good gear) working in the audience. The show itself starts as a “normal” show with Criss dressed as you may have seen him in his TV shows. He vanished on stage from behind a fan’s banner (the only stooge in the show, or audience participation of any kind) only to reappear instantly in the audience as one of the clowns. This was technically well done but had the feel of something that was being rushed through to get somewhere else, which is exactly what it was. He then attempted the Tesla Coil stunt that he did in series one of Mindfreak. This went wrong. He got badly burnt and was rushed to hospital in an ambulance. This was unconvincing and for me the entire 15 minutes that got us to this point could have been done mainly as a Video clip within two minutes. Fleeting mention is made during this section to Kayala (The love interest in the main body of the show) and the women operating the POV (Audience Point of View Camera) who he doesn’t like. She becomes Crimson, the show’s evil villain. Such important plot points probably need establishing better, save the audience having problems following the story line (such that it is) later on.

The rest of the show then takes place in the mind of the heavily sedated Criss Angel. The “No photographs” announcements were made on stage (out of a packing case that had been there from the start) by Lucky the (puppet) rabbit who is promptly killed by a falling stage light. The other rabbits don't take kindly to this and when Criss was then carried onto stage on the stretcher his body was torn apart by said rabbits and mostly eaten. The bits that are left were gathered up (by the clowns) and put into “The machine” from which Criss was reborn. His first words being “where am I and who are all these people”, I was beginning to think the same thing.

Clad in new (Victorian gentlemen inspired) costume he performed a Dove Act that was first class and one of the highlights of the show. The productions were clean and controlled and the birds each flew to an adjacent stage tree by themselves. There was a lovely twist on the “bird to silk”, Criss then put on a pair of wings and gently flew off into the wings as the piece finished with a flock of white Doves flying out across the audience. All very nice.

Another set piece with the clowns and beautifully costumed (Dark) characters followed before Criss announced “lets build something”. The “something” turned out to be a monster, which came to life and concluded as a nice piece of magic, the plot for which had already been seen in the show and (to the detriment of the show’s balance) was to be repeated several more times although to be fair this was perfectly adequate magic if not the spectacle we had been promised. That said the method was straight out of any theatre production where a person needs switching and, from a man whose TV programmes constantly present illusions with no apparent method (at all), I would expect better.

We then moved onto a scene in a forest with a large video screen which Criss used to perform a Tony Chapek style interactive with the on-screen Criss. This involved costume changes and was sold as being part of the developing love story theme between Criss and Kayala. I felt as if we had been parachuted into this relationship which was probably due to the editing the show is still undergoing but none the less, will need sorting because this is not of the same quality of love story that threads through the Phantom of the Opera (just one of this shows many Las Vegas rivals.)

The final chapters of the story see Criss put into a straight jacket from which he escapes (over the audience – nicely done) and then locked into a box only to change places with Crimson through a screen of fire and (dry) ice (Metamorphosis).

Criss then gets married to Kayala who wears the biggest wedding dress you will ever see and down which Criss performs his trademark “Wall walk” (with the unhooking being nicely covered by a hug from one of the clowns, which again shows us his methods are the same as the ones everyone else uses, they just appear to be missing when we see him on TV!).

I will leave out the end of the story but it features a version of the (Alan) Wakling sawing in half (without restoration) which (although Copperfield does it better) got a very strong reaction from the audience.

Then without plot link we were at a disco with Criss Angel singing a version of the Mindfreak theme tune, go figure!

Once everyone had taken off their masks (a traditional Cirque show finale) all the side tabs ware flown out and lighting rig was flown in. With the stage in this “bare” state Criss then rose vertical into the flies and so the show ended with most of the audience on its feet, leaving before the very end to avoid the queue to get their Cameras back (this will be explained shortly).

'Believe' is being heralded as the new Cirque show in town and with that comes expectations, the weight of which may prove too much for the show to bear. This is a very good afternoon show performed by a good magician and in time it will grow into something that is closer to the hyped promise. But it’s not there yet.

So what's wrong with it? Well the Cirque association is both a blessing and a curse. The show has a great look to it, the costumes are amazing and the team of clowns that support Criss throughout the show are first rate. But this show takes place in a traditional theatre setting and the Cirque performances (there are two specific set pieces in the current version of the show) seemed somewhat too confined and out of place. Also (and this is a major issue) Cirque are known as the people who can do anything with a stage. Whether it be make if go vertical (ka), turn into a swimming pool (O), or have holes in it one second and none the next (Mystere). So trap doors are a piece of cake. Add to this the fact they are intentionally used several times in the show and the mystery of anything that can possibly be achieved by such means (on stage vanishes and appearances) is gone.

There is also intentional flying with visible wires followed closely by Criss flying; only difference really being you cannot see his wires. That said what are they to do? It is a consequence of mixing the magic of Cirque with conjuring. On the plus side whilst Criss Angel’s status as a world class magician is questionable there is no doubting the pedigree of the Cirque du Soleil team behind the show. So the worrying early reviews are fair too premature in my opinion. It is apparent that this is very much a work in progress and changes have already been made.

These things are never black and white and a number of factors (not just creative ones) come into play when deciding the fate of something with so much riding on it. Without an audience the show will die anyway as was evidenced by Hans Klok's recent short run. Criss's army of fans amassed after four series of Mindfreak are ensuring that he is playing to near full houses at the minute but even "Loyals" (as his fans are called) will start to stay away if the customer care experience isn't improved. Preview shows were cancelled and rescheduled and with it the chance for people to meet Criss. The box office weren't offering any real dispensation other than a refund or tickets for other snows. Then on the night the no camera rule was being applied with vigor meaning 80 percent of the audience queued to have their cameras checked-in. This meant the show started 10 minutes late with people still coming in. We were told by a loud Programme Seller that if you have a camera they will find it. Other than the briefest of bag checks they didn't even look for one and you could keep your phone, many of which have really powerful cameras anyway. There was then a queue at the end to recover them that got so big it effectively stopped people getting out of the auditorium even though they were leaving early to avoid it. On the plus side there was a man giving out vouchers for a free drink pre-show and if they can't get customer care right there really is no hope.

Also the financiers need to keep faith and Criss needs to listen to people. Cirque don't do failure and the show will get masses of artistic support. I fear though for the magical content. They need the strongest team possible and allegedly Criss is running out of magical allies, so we shall see.

Then there is the media and the internet. Bad reviews can bury the show and they haven’t started off well. I just hope, when the full show reviews start to appear after the premier on 31 October, that they are more favourable. I am a fan of both Cirque and Criss Angel and would really like the show to be the one we were all promised. That really would be something to behold and worth traveling across eight time zones to see. So I wait in hope but in conclusion it must be said the early signs are not the best.

© Steve Evans, October 2008