Master magician brings inventive comedy and tricks to ‘The Illusionists’

Master magician Kevin James will perform in “The Illusionists” from Feb. 9-11 at the Morrison Center.
Master magician Kevin James will perform in “The Illusionists” from Feb. 9-11 at the Morrison Center.

Kevin James saw his first magician at a school assembly in Jonesville, Mich., when he was 10. From that moment on, he was hooked on an obsession that would direct the course of his life.

“I knew instantly that was it,” he says. “I completely skipped fireman and astronaut. From then on, everything was about magic.”

Now a famed magician and one of “The Illusionists,” James spoke from his home in Las Vegas, where he was on a break between the show’s Broadway run and the launch of its national U.S. tour that plays three shows at the Morrison Center, Tuesday, Feb. 9, to Thursday, Feb. 11.

“I became the most aggressive lawn mower in my village because I needed the money to buy magic books,” James says. “When my parents wanted me to go to college I said, ‘Fine, but it needs to be something that helps the magic.’ So, I studied theater. I moved to L.A., eked out a living to get started. It’s called paying your dues.”

James worked his way into the Las Vegas and corporate show circuits. He has performed at the Magic Castle in Los Angeles and the Crazy Horse in Paris. He even got a “command performance” at the White House after he became a sensation on “America’s Got Talent” in 2007 with his comically twisted “Operation.” In the trick, he “accidentally” saws a person in half with a chain saw, then reanimates them right before your eyes.

“It went viral, and suddenly I was getting calls from booking agents around the world from places I didn’t even know would want a magician,” James says.

You’ll get to see “The Operation” live along with a few other tricks that this magic comedian has up his sleeves during the show that has a rock-concert appeal. “It’s really high energy with driving music that heightens the tension,” he says.

James shares the stage with six other magic men — The Escapologist Andrew Basso, The Manipulator Yu Ho-Jin, The Trickster Jeff Hobson, The Anti-Conjuror Dan Sperry, The Weapon Master Ben Blaque and The Deceptionist James More — all superstars in the magic field.

Each magician has a stage persona that speaks to the core of his act and abilities. James is called The Inventor because he creates and builds his unorthodox tricks from the ground up, a flair that has given him the reputation as one of the most original magic acts in the business.

James’ act puts the accent on thrills and comedy.

That’s something he seems to come by naturally, with a family connection on his father’s side to P.T. Barnum, the producer of “The Greatest Show on Earth.” It might be a tenuous genetic connection but that doesn’t matter to James. The lineage in spirit comes out in James’ showmanship.

He uses nontraditional assistants such as dwarf Antonio Hoyos, which adds an element of surprise and comedy to his amazing feats.

James’ biggest influence comes from magic icon Doug Henning, who became a household name in the 1970s. He performed a spectacular Tony-nominated show on Broadway. More to the point, Henning did multiple Emmy-winning TV specials that captivated a young James.

Henning retired in the mid-1980s to pursue a passion for Transcendental Meditation, “the inside kind of magic,” James says. The two became friends when Henning tried to return to the stage in the 1990s. Henning helped give James his break in Vegas.

“I owe him a lot for getting this whole ball rolling,” James says.

You might think a show with seven magicians would be an egomaniac’s dream, with each one trying to keep their secrets safe. Not true, James says.

“The biggest kept secret in magic is that the secrets don’t matter,” James says. “They’re only about 3 percent of the equation. Artistic interpretation is the key: costumes, body language, music, timing and all that other stuff that goes into it — is what makes it a joy to watch. I stand backstage and watch these guys work. Every night, I learn something new.”

Many of them came up through the ranks together. James and Hobson, for example, met and became friends at a magic convention when they were teenagers. That camaraderie makes the show more fun, he says, as each of the illusionists plays, tries new things and tweaks their act each night.

The popularity of “The Illusionists” on Broadway and on tour speaks to the growing resurgence of magic as entertainment, he says.

“It’s more than just a natural cycle,” James says. “People are looking for more thrills and theatricality. There’s a hunger for it that magic satisfies.”

The Illusionists

7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, Feb. 9-11, Morrison Center, 2201 W. Cesar Chavez Lane. $37.50-$60. Ticketmaster.