Fred Becker – Cest Magique

Columnist:
Fred Becker

Cíest Magique

Only twice in my cruise ship career have I had the pleasure of watching another magician(s) on the ship I was working. The first was the ìMagic Theme Cruisesî on NCL. Our own Ron Wilson produced these weeks of magical entertainment at sea. There were about twenty professional magicians providing the entertainment, both stage and close-up. Ron gathered a dream-team cast, indeed a majority of the performers have since appeared on television shows like the ìworlds greatestî or their own network specials. It was such an honor to be apart of it that I look upon those cruises more like play than work.

My second chance to sit and watch a sea going magic show happened only last month on Disney Cruise Lineís ship ìThe Magic.î Her main show place, the ìWalt Disney Theatreî is a good size showroom seating over 1200. As you might imagine, Disney puts on very spectacular shows in this room. One such Disney produced spectacle is ìCíest Magique, the Fine Art of Illusion.î

You may wonder how I got to be there to watch the launching of this new show. I have a recurring job with the Disney Cruise Line as a cabaret performer. I work in a room that seats about 350. While Cíest Magique is more magic than Iíd ever dream about performing, there are only two words spoken in the entire show and they are you guessed them ìCíest Magique!î My job as the cabaret performer is to be a talking comedy magician with audience participation and to not do any illusions. To me, this is a good gig!

That is how I got to be sitting in the audience on opening night. I will first tell you about the show experience itself, then I will give you my impressions and opinions; Upon entering the Walt Disney Theatre an usher handed me a legal sized paper with miniature reproductions of famous paintings and portraits of classic composers on one side and twelve playing cards on the other. I was told to hold onto this page, as we would use it during the show for a group ìcard trick.î The curtain was up when I entered and the stage set was visible for all to see. And what a set it is; it appears as though we are looking in on the hold of a ship with cases, crates and forms covered with drop cloths.

Cíest Magique centers around a fictitious 19th-century magician, Prospero. Prospero was not only a performer but a collector of fine art and music. Pre-show there is a soundtrack of the creaking sounds of a vessel in rough water and the sounds of rainsqualls. Occasionally the atmosphere is supplemented with old style radio news broadcasts filling us in with Prosperoís background. This is the kind of clever storytelling that makes Disney, Disney. Near as I can tell, Prospero was about to cinch his place as the worldís greatest magician by performing ìNeptuneís Tombî (recognizable to us as the water torture illusion). However on his way to America his ship passed through the Bermuda Triangle. The ship was found, but Prospero had mysteriously disappeared. I had a feeling that this night Iíd see something trigger his triumphant return.

I found a seat next to some familiar faces, Geminite and master illusion builder (to the stars), Bill Smith and his incredibly charming wife Gigi. Even though Bill crafted these illusions and we sat in on many rehearsals, the anticipation was high. And for good reason. Bill built some illusions for this show that are completely unique.

The house lights dim and we see some movement in the back of the set. A man in a raincoat lowers himself onto the stage in a metal cage. He is shining a flashlight, clearly exploring the shipís hold for the first time. He removes his raincoat, leaving it on a hook. We soon find that this character is comic relief as he knocks things over and in so doing revealing Prosperoís treasures. The actor is actually a well-known clown and mime in his native Russia.

Revealed for us to see are paintings such as Degasí ìBallerina,î a sculpture of Atlas holding the Globe, a Picasso, a Van Gogh self-portrait and a life-sized portrait of Prospero holding a crystal ball.

The workman (Morty) opens a case and a glowing crystal ball (the one seen in the portrait) floats upward and all around the stage. Morty moves the Prospero portrait onto a table. The painting revolves within the frame, showing no one behind it. The Portrait is flown upward and as it does, the real Prospero appears in the flesh as the painted image disappears. The floating ball alights in his outstretched hand. A chest of drawers rolls itself in front of the table he stands on. The three drawers open themselves different lengths to create a set of stairs. Prospero walks forward for his applause.

In rapid pace he brings his assistants to life, one lovely lady becomes animated from her stained glass prison, the ballerina literally steps down out of the painting, a bust of Nefertiti sitting on a table suddenly breathes life and so on. Prosperoís cast eventually is made up of the likes of Beethoven, Van Gogh, the Blue Boy, and Atlas. Yes, one of the coolest moments in the show is when this very realistic looking marble sculpture stands up and walks! Not exactly magic, but illusion all the same.

Next the show features a new illusion Iíll call ìPrinting Press.î A pedestal table is center stage. From the wings, the cast brings Prospero a large Gutenberg style press. The press is hinged open and a girl lays directly under the press. The press presses and the girl is now two-dimensional and etched on canvas. The process is reversed and the painting ìAmerican Gothicî is shown and placed under the press. This time the canvas is wiped clean as the press is raised and there stand the farmer, his wife AND the pitchfork in person. This gets a tremendous reaction and is almost my personal favorite illusion in the show.

Prospero pulls a lady from a painting, picks her up and causes her to float horizontally. She floats 360 degrees around him. The lady is covered with a sheet and she rises 20 feet in the air (via ashra). Prospero levitates himself straight up behind her for one of the most spectacular sights of the show. When he touches back down, both feet on the stage, he reaches up and pulls the cloth away. She vanishes in the time-honored tradition. Walking back to the empty frame, he’d whirls the cloth in front of it and her image reappears.

A ballerina takes the stage, as our character assistants bring on an ErtÈ decorated prop. The ballerina is placed on the table and inside the box. What ensues is a sort of thin model sawing in half. Except in this one, the leg box is opened up and the bottom-half of the ballerina dances across the stage by itself. Meanwhile, the torso section is brought to rest on a swing and our legless girl swings back and forth for all to see. This is quite an incredible sight and I tip my hat to Bill Smith for making such a wonderful routine come to life. The legs dance over to meet the torso and the two are once more joined.

In the next segment we are treated to a dancing handkerchiefs routine with Beethoven himself conducting the music. During all of the preceding show, Morty the workman taunts Prospero with a poster of his promised water torture cell escape. Once again the magician turns the tables and invites Morty to entertain the audience. For the next ten minutes, we are treated to a fine example of European clowning. Morty turns out to be quite a talented mime, juggler and all-around funny guy. No words are spoken during his turns, which is not surprising considering our entertainer truly speaks only a few words of English.

A beautiful illusion is performed which they call “Silhouette.” The cast performs sensuous choreography as Prospero demonstrates the art of origami. He walks behind an oriental screen and places a folded piece of paper behind it. Amazingly we see the shadow of the paper unfold and grow and form itself into the silhouette of a young lady. Prospero reaches his hand toward the shadow and pulls a very real girl onto the stage. Another assistant steps behind the screen and soon her shadow takes the shape of a bouquet of flowers. The screen is removed and flowers are presented to the first young lady.

Prospero and Morty have a fencing match. And just when we think that perhaps Morty has the upper hand, Prospero stands in Morty’s shoes, having magically change places. Following this is the routine called “art attack.” Using the sheets we were given upon entering the theater, we are instructed to let our fingers do the walking, first to a painting, then a composer and then another painting. The instructions are sung to the melodies of several operas. Where our collective fingers stop there’s a playing card on the opposite side of the page. A giant easel that rotates 360 degrees is brought onstage; the cast proceeds to sing while painting a 12 ft. tall portrait. When the backdrop is raised we discover that the portrait matches the ìcourtlyî identity of the card we all chose.

Prospero can no longer duck Morty’s insistence to see the water torture cell. Prospero is chained and lowered into the tank. The entire cast gathers around as the curtains are raised. Tension builds, until they lower the curtains and we see Prospero continue to struggle. The curtains are raised once more, yet in what seems like a few seconds the curtain drops again; Prospero has vanished. From the middle of the room we hear the call ìC’est Magique!î All turn to see Prospero in middle of the theater, dripping wet. Prospero makes his way to the stage during a huge amount of applause. The cast join him for the curtain call.

The show is without a doubt the most beautiful magic show I have ever seen. The richness and texture of the show is quite palpable. The London Symphony performed the music score. The sets call to mind a fine museum. The costumes are a picture of elegance. And the illusions are not only innovative but look like something other than magicians’ props.

The show still has some growing pains. Disney’s insistence to have the show look nothing like a traditional magic show (read Las Vegas glitz) they have given up some of the wisdom gained the hard way. For instance the floating ball and dancing handkerchiefs are staged in front of a light colored background. The modus is needlessly exposed. From the last report I heard, the dancing handkerchiefs routine was being cut from the show.

Washington D.C. based magician Joe Romano has played the part of Prospero. Romano is an illusionist with great deal of experience in theme parks. He worked for Paul Osborne Productions before producing his own shows for attractions such as Six Flags and Universal Studios. Joe is also amazingly successful at producing themed shows for the public schools.

Joe Romano has done a wonderful job portraying the magician and learning this complex show. Unfortunately, Joeís contract is over and an actor, not a magician, has replaced him. Without a magicianís trained eye on the job, I worry about the life of the show.

Cruise lines have been producing illusion shows for several years now. Few have been successful. It is my opinion that winning shows have less to do with spectacular illusions and more to do with compelling characters. Most of the cruise industryís attempts at a magic show are production show revues. A lot of singing and dancing around an impersonal parade of magic effects. Instead, Disney Cruise Linesí model for Cíest Magique was Cirque du Soleil. While this avoided many of the traps from which the revue style shows suffer, I believe a great magic show requires a strong personality to drive it.

I am in no way criticizing the performer in the show, rather the way the role is written. As I understand it, we are to believe that we are seeing the ghosts in the machines. Prospero is a phantasm, not a time traveler. The audience witnesses the spirit of Prospero, and so the writers reason he should not actually interact with those watching. While that may be reasonable, they do not bridge the void with character. Cirque du Soleil works as a spectacle with interchangeable acrobatic acts. It is my hypothesis however, that a show made up of illusions needs a main character people relate to or care about.

Nevertheless, if ever there was a company that can make a success out of a cruise ship magic production, Disney is the one. They are making changes and adjustments continuously so the final product may not yet be on stage. Ultimately, there is much to love about the show, particularly the elegant illusions, the dignity of the approach to our art; the music, sets and costumes are of the highest standard.