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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘El Mago Pop’ review: A boy next door with the magic touch

Antonio Díaz in “El Mago Pop” at the Ethel Barrymore Theater in Manhattan.

By Alexis Soloski

Not so long ago, landing a helicopter on a Broadway stage was kind of a big deal. In “El Mago Pop,” the charming, thrilling, silly Broadway show by Spanish illusionist Antonio Díaz, it is one of the more minor stunts. The stage is empty. Then it’s ornamented by a red-and-silver copter. Then it’s empty again, except for lights and sparks.

Díaz grew up on the outskirts of Barcelona, Spain. Like most professional magicians, he discovered magic early and worked at it obsessively, a process he details in a long video sequence that begins the brief show. (Excluding the video and a padded curtain call, the live action runs perhaps an hour.) At 37, he claims to be the youngest illusionist to present a show on Broadway, but as with many of his effects, that’s a tricky thing to verify. Doug Henning seems to have been the same age.

Díaz bops onto the stage of the Ethel Barrymore Theater in a white shirt, skinny black pants and a skinnier black tie, the outfit of an excitable 1960s mod. He is short and slight, with long, nimble fingers — watch those fingers when you can, the precision and economy are gorgeous — and a high, fast voice. In contrast with the heavy eyeliner and gothic fripperies of magic’s 2000s efflorescence, he seems indefatigably nice and bountifully cheerful as he bounces up and down in his sneakers, which seem to have helium lifts. He is a prestidigitator you could take home to mother.

As if to underline that sweetness, each ticket holder receives a candy jar upon entering. The jars feature in a fairly modest mathematics-focused magic trick. Still the gesture is nice. This boy-next-door persona sometimes feels at odds with director Mag Lari’s extravagant staging, a symphony of blinding lights and so very many open flames. A day later, I am still picking confetti out of my clothes. But maybe that’s what happens when the boy next door comes to Broadway. And yet his skills are never in doubt.

“I intend for you to see impossible things tonight,” Díaz says. Fairly often, he delivers.

There is a recent trend in magic, popularized by performers such as Derek DelGaudio and Helder Guimarães, to weave tricks into some larger narrative, often a personal history. Díaz gestures toward that, but he doesn’t actually share much of himself. The video suggests the story of a boy who dreams of achieving the incredible. And Díaz tells the audience that this brief stint on Broadway culminates those dreams, which nods to an emotional undercurrent. But there’s little narrative here, just the sense of a canny and dexterous performer checking off another box on a “Become an International Sensation” to-do list.

Díaz’s rise, like his stage maneuvers, is presented as unfailingly smooth, with doubt, quirk and adversity scrubbed away. In place of narrative, there are cartoon video interludes — Díaz as a superhero, Díaz as an old man — or the relentlessly basic playlist Díaz relies on: “Power of Love,” “Shut Up and Dance,” the “Star Wars” theme, multiple Coldplay numbers. (Díaz and Jesús Díaz are credited with the music selection.) There is also, absurdly, an extended clip from “Forrest Gump.”

“El Mago Pop” alternates between large-scale illusions and smaller ones, performed in the aisles of the orchestra and shot by roaming cameramen. This means that if you are seated in the back of the theater or in the upper tiers, you will see the show mostly on-screen, which has a way of diminishing awe. Most of us have been spoiled by too many special effects, editing tricks and filters to trust the evidence of screens. For me, the close-up stunts performed in the opposite aisle felt far less astonishing than one that happened just a few feet away, in which a volunteer’s ring shot through the air and landed, rattling, inside a covered shot glass.

Levitation is one of Díaz’s specialties. Teleportation is another. The teleportation tricks are probably his best. When assistants or ostensible audience members appear, in a blink, in a vitrine on the opposite side of the stage, it produces a giddy feeling of wonder.

His audience interaction is less certain. For one trick, he selected a very young child, who looked uncomfortable, even terrified, to be brought onstage. The child didn’t speak, but when Díaz asked, “Do you like magic?,” a vigorous shake of the head was given: No. That got a laugh, so Díaz repeated the question. The child squirmed. Was this worth it for a routine with a wristwatch?

Díaz’s best routine was performed alone to a peppy Jacques Brel song. Breathlessly, Díaz manipulated a ball (a tribute to Cardini’s classic billiard ball routine), many cards, even his own right shoe. His hands would be empty. His mouth would be empty. You would swear to it on any available Bible. Then they would be full, cards raining to the floor. He sent a few cards whizzing through the air in a way that reminded me of Ricky Jay, a scholar and magician who died in 2018. I may have teared up a little. This was Díaz’s simplest sequence and also his most beautiful. Who needs a helicopter when you can make magic like that?

‘El Mago Pop’Through Aug. 27 at the Barrymore Theater, Manhattan; Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

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