By Larry Widen Special to OnMilwaukee Published Dec 02, 2022 at 5:01 PM

The Trickster. The Mentalist. The Unforgettable, The Manipulator and The Deceptionist. The names sound like characters in a Stan Lee comic book. Instead, they’re the alter egos of five world-renowned magicians that perform frequently on Broadway and in Las Vegas as The Illusionists.

The group is currently touring the country with their "Magic of the Holidays" show, which includes a four-night stop at the Riverside beginning Tuesday, Dec. 6 through Thursday, Dec. 9. The family-friendly performances include close-up magic, large illusions, mind reading and a few surprises wrapped in a 21st century technological spectacle.

Paul Dabek – aka The Trickster – spoke with OnMilwaukee in advance of the Riverside shows with insights on the history of magic and how The Illusionists dazzle audiences with tricks that defy explanation. Like any good magician, however, Dabek did not reveal much more than a hint about what theatergoers can expect.

OnMilwaukee: What’s the difference between an illusionist and a magician?

Paul Dabek: About a million dollars! (Laughs) I’m kidding. It’s all considered magic, the difference being that an illusionist typically does big box tricks like making a tiger disappear. Those are stage-sized illusions rather than the smaller ones that a so-called magician would perform. We do all of it during the show.

What distinguishes The Illusionists from other magic acts?

I’m not going to be modest here. There’s nothing like what we do anywhere. We employ the classic motifs of magic but updated to the 21st century. For example, there are cameras onstage with views from all sides. If someone thinks, "Well, that’s all well and good, but what’s happening behind the box?", that’s not an issue because a camera is positioned at the rear of the stage. The audience can see what’s taking place from all angles. The 360-degree live feed allows us to present smaller tricks in a large format so everyone in the house can see them. That’s just one of the things people love about the show. It’s a modern take on magic with an interactive dimension. We’re all about anticipating the sophistication of the audience and staying one step ahead of that. The art of magic is timeless and constantly changing.

Is the willingness of the audience to suspend their disbelief a factor?

Absolutely! In fact, you just used the exact phrase that I employ when opening the show. It’s not that hard to accomplish that because it’s what we all do at the movies, you know? We watch a stunt scene or a bit of CGI as if it were real. There’s been a parallel between modern magic and movies since the early 20th century. Our show is fast moving and visually exciting, so the audience is always engaged.

A minute ago, you used the word "timeless." Can you narrow that down a bit?

Sure. There are historic books and journals that describe in detail what we call magic tricks today. “The Discovery of Witchcraft” talks about the art of misdirection being used for entertainment or profit as well as for more sinister purposes. Magic in one form or another has been around for many hundreds of years.

Was Harry Houdini an illusionist?

He was pretty much everything. Early in his career, he was a magician doing sleight-of-hand tricks at fairs and sideshows. He was billed as "The King of Cards" for his dexterity with an ordinary deck of playing cards. At that point, he was what we call a manipulator. As his fame grew, so did the size and scope of his shows. He was world-famous for his big illusions and escapes. One of our performers is Hyunjoon Kim, a master manipulator from South Korea. He’s won awards for his highly disciplined hand technique, so I’m glad you asked about that. The audiences love him.

Who are some of the other performers?

Our show emphasizes different genres of magic, so the audience gets to see a real variety of tricks. If we were Marvel comic book heroes, we all would all have a different superpower. (Laughs) Myself, I’m the Trickster. I weave a lot of fun and comedy into my part of the show. Chris Cox is The Mentalist, a world-class mind reader and he’s fantastic! The audiences are blown away by the things he can name. Pablo Cánovas, from Spain, is called The Unforgettable. His magic is visually intriguing, and I’d describe it as very Harry Potteresque. James More is The Deceptionist, and he’s been inventing magic tricks since he was eight years old! Each of us does a solo act, and there are several times when we appear together. The result is a fabulous group of magicians performing what we’ve perfected over our respective lifetimes.

That sounds like another way of saying "hard work."

Penn Gillette of Penn and Teller probably said it best. He likened becoming an expert magician to learning to fly a plane. It comes down to getting that all-important flight time in the cockpit. There’s no substitute for practice and experience. 

How will the Riverside show incorporate a holiday theme?

I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s safe to say our show is infused with holiday cheer. It’s fast moving, uplifting and festive. The audience is going to be amazed. And I’m thrilled to be back at the Riverside. I’ve performed there twice, and it’s a beautiful theater.

That evasive answer was a nice bit of misdirection.

(Laughs) That’s so funny! I love that. Of course, I’m not going to tell you anything. I don’t want to spoil things for your readers!