Thursday, February 22, 2001

Magic in a Digital Age

The Spencers bring the "theatre of illusion" to the world of magic.

Posted By on Thu, Feb 22, 2001 at 4:00 AM

Millions of people fly across the country every year. We've made computers that can think faster than we do. We've mapped the human genome. But show us someone who can guess our card was the Ace of Spades and we still sit up in awe.

For Kevin Spencer, this is what makes magic worth performing.

"To be in this age of technology and to still be able to bring wonder to anything, to be able to create that emotion in people, is great," says the magician and illusionist. Spencer is a performer in the escape tradition of Houdini or Harry Blackstone Jr. But neither of them shared the stage with his wife.

"The fact that my wife and I work as a team makes it a better show," says Spencer. "We know each other so well and so many of those things are expressed on the stage. Who we are together works well on the stage."

Cindy Spencer got involved in magic through Kevin. She was working as a diamond consultant and dating Kevin's roommate when the three of them started performing together. After the roommate left the act, Cindy and Kevin continued to work together and eventually fell in love. They've been married for 18 years.

Spencer, on the other hand, has wanted to be a magician ever since he was very young.

"I was 5 or 6 when I saw my first magic show. It was so completely fascinating." After getting a magic kit for Christmas, he started putting on shows, eventually doing them for local civic groups during junior high and high school.

"I lived in a farm town in Indiana. Everybody knew I was the little boy who did magic."

During college, he majored in clinical psychology and worked his way through by continuing to give magic shows.

"I was going into it to help people with their minds," Spencer says and laughs. "Now all I do is mess with them."

It was around this time he saw Doug Henning perform, talked to him backstage after the show for over an hour, and decided that he was going to do magic for a living. But Spencer says his show is a little different from most of the magic shows you see in live venues or on television.

For one thing, the Spencers perform with a lot of audience participation.

"That's the most exciting part, when people can experience it for themselves," says Spencer. "When they can be close to it, it becomes incredible." But it also lends credibility to the show. After an audience member comes off the stage, his friends and neighbors can ask him what exactly happened.

But the main difference, Spencer thinks, is that they try to present the show with a theatrical twist.

"A lot of times when you see magicians perform, they bring the illusion onto the stage and then they carry the box off after they're through." This is not the way the Spencers work. Using elements from the theater -- music, lighting, scenery, special effects -- the duo tries to bring a sense of heightened tension and fluidity to the production.

"Like any good play or musical, the audience experiences a wide variety of emotions," says Spencer. "There are light-hearted tricks and then there are very dramatic moments."

But all that sleight of hand is building toward one key moment.

"Each illusion is a kind of act on its own. They are each dressed differently until we get to the finale." The Spencers try to tailor each show to the stage on which they're performing. On the stage of the Bartlett Performing Arts Center, that means Houdini's water trick: A milk tank is filled to the brim with 50 gallons of water, and Spencer is chained and padlocked inside the tank.

"And I have to get out," says Spencer. "It's pretty intense. Not many people do it anymore. I'm not sure if that's because of skill or stupidity."

He laughs and decides it's a question of skill.

The Spencers: Theatre of Illusion

8 p.m., Friday, February 23rd

$15

Bartlett Performing Arts and Conference Center

About Bob

Fosse pays tribute to a choreography legend.

Posted By on Thu, Feb 22, 2001 at 4:00 AM

I write in defense of the bump and grind.

And the spotlighted shoulder-roll invitation. Pigeon-toe coyness. The peep-show nod of a bolo hat, sheer black tights, and a bar-back chair. A hand holding a cigarette, its smoke outlining the curve of a woman's hip.

I write in defense of Bob Fosse.

Not that Bob Fosse, the man, the choreographer, the director, the self-styled dancin' man, needs defending. He won mainstream accolades galore: an Emmy, a Tony, and an Oscar in one year. It's his artful mixing of the bawdy and the sophisticated on stage before anyone else and better than anyone else that has been seemingly forgotten in modern musical theater. Consider contemporary adaptations of Fosse style. And if you think you don't know Fosse, you do. His razzle-dazzle combination of jazz, burlesque, ballet, acrobatics, and Tin Pan/vaudevillian choreography has influenced every major performing artist from MTVers to Carnegie Hallers. Yet, try as some might to mimic the choreographer's magic, it's clear that stage entertainment will never be as complex, interesting, or fun as Fosse made it.

True, Fosse, the biographical musical which opened to a full house Tuesday night at The Orpheum, was not choreographed by the man himself but by Ann Reinking, his protegÇ and current Broadway diva since Liza with a Z gained 400 pounds. Though the show appears to be Fosse turned up a notch, with almost identical staging of his most famous numbers from Chicago, Sweet Charity, Cabaret, The Pajama Game, and Dancin' -- missing are Pippin and Damn Yankees -- Reinking has carefully placed transitional interludes between numbers as a way to introduce the audience to a different side of the artist. But she doesn't mess with the essence of Fosse's special brand of vaudevillian entertainment. "Steam Heat," Fosse's trademark piece, stands out in the revue as does "Big Spender" from Sweet Charity. The show is a genuine ode to Reinking's mentor. And as with anything associated with Fosse, the musical maintains its unapologetic sexiness.

But not every musical that Fosse placed a hip-swivel and finger-snap to has avoided sexual contrivance. Nineteen ninety-seven's Broadway revival of Cabaret, directed by American Beauty's Sam Mendes, is a crotch-grabbing mÇnage Ö trois screw-fest that took Fosse choreography and added a helping of over-the-top titillations. The revamped version is not much like Fosse's 1972 Oscar-winning film version starring Liza Minelli as the too-talented for a strip club Sally Bowles and Joel Grey as the emcee. Mendes downgrades Bowles to a karaoke-level star in this 100-percent perverse adaptation. "Two Ladies" doesn't indulge the imagination and, oddly, Bowles' love interest is a closet homosexual -- a twist that isn't alluded to in Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories, which the musical is based on. All of this is not to imply that Mendes' version isn't worthy; it won a slew of Tonys for a reason. But there is a distinct absence of Fosse's talent for making the raunchy complex and the profound more digestible.

The film Cabaret was very different from the stage version. It was revolutionary in its depiction of a bleak, upsetting future run by a government of hate bent on destroying all free thinking. Though it wasn't the first film to feature androgyny, Cabaret's Joel Grey in clown makeup likely inspired fascination among glam-rockers and was cinematically echoed by films like A Clockwork Orange. Fosse's film was a post-modern feat, showing shadows of shadows, stage-like devices such as red ribbons strewn across the ground of a Jewish ghetto to intimate bloodshed, and people in fun-house distortion behind glass bricks. When was the last time a musical was turned into a beautiful, well-choreographed film? Forget Evita. During its dance scenes, the camera managed to cut off all the actors' feet.

Broadway has become anesthetized, cleaned with giant Disney sponges, its subway stations dripping with plastic cartoon numbers. The hookers of Times Square who could have easily sung their tired hearts out in Sweet Charity have been replaced by Donald Duck and Goofy. What is playing on the Great White Way? Annie Get Your Gun, Beauty and the Beast, Rent, Seussical (starring Rosie O'Donnell, no less). New York Times theater critics as recent as Frank Rich and as far back as Walter Kerr have lamented that there's nothing exciting happening to characters on Broadway.

Fosse, however, offered dancers a chance to become more than wallpaper for the actors. For the choreographer who died of a heart attack after rehearsals for a mid-1980s Chicago revival, singing, dancing, and acting were interchangeable. And the most concise example of that is Fosse, a musical revue that he had nothing to do with but is dedicated solely to him.

Fosse, Through February 25th, The Orpheum

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