More than four decades ago, my parents took me to the Cort Theater on Broadway to see “The Magic Show,” starring Doug Henning.
He was different than all the other magicians I’d seen on TV who wore tuxedoes and made doves appear out of their sleeves. Henning wore a tie-dyed t-shirt and hangdog mustache as he spoke of the “wonder” of what we were seeing. Magicians I’ve spoken to since have told me that Henning didn’t really break any new ground in the art, but he did make it hipper, so it appealed to a younger audience, and pulled the profession’s image away from its staid past. Henning’s show, which included musical numbers by Stephen Schwartz (“Pippin,” “Godspell,” “Wicked,” “Fosse”) was so popular, it ran more than four years.
Recently, I went back to the Cort Theater to see another magician, Derren Brown, do his one-man show. I’d never seen him in person but enjoyed his Netflix specials and wanted to see what his act looked like when not viewed through the lens of a produced and edited TV show.
With his British accent and professorial demeanor, Brown — who wears a three-piece suit in the first act and and a tux with tails in the second — is nothing like Henning. His act is almost all mentalism, and he’s very good at it. Not only does he know how to verbally manipulate a crowd, he also knows that audience members who think they’re really paying close attention can often be the easiest ones to fool — and he’s not above referencing that a few times during his show.
He’s also very good at working with “volunteers” he selects by flinging Frisbees into the theater. He not only gains their confidence, he gets ours, too, as he makes it easy to be drawn into each deception.
During the show, Brown requests that attendees not give away any of the bits he does during his 2+ hour show, whether in reviews or on social media. I would never do that for any magician, but in his case, “Secret” is a perfectly apt title. There is one thing in the show that even the least-discerning viewers might see coming, but that’s overwhelmed by the rest of his cleverly designed and executed routines, which build to a very satisfactory conclusion.
I particularly appreciated that at least twice during the evening, Brown made sure to explain that he has no special powers, that there are no such things as psychics or ESP, and that his gifts are not supernatural, but the result of a career spent practicing, preparing, and provoking.
I give Derren Brown’s “Secret” a 9 out of 10. If you’re in New York during its limited run, I strongly recommend you go and be amazed, too.