I tried. Really, I did. I tried to put everything I knew about Criss Angel aside as I sat down in his Luxor theater last weekend. Criss Angel Believe has changed dramatically since I saw it in early 2010, and Mike Weatherford, in his Review-Journal re-review in November, upgraded Cirque du Soleil’s first headliner vehicle to a B. Gone was the borderline-racist plot that required dreadful acting by Angel and most of the outlandish and distracting Cirque costumes and imagery; this was now a wall-to-wall, straight-up Angel magic show.
So I decided it was time to give it another shot, and that’s when the trying began.
As I waited for the show to begin, I tried to forget what I knew about Angel. I tried not to consider his mid-2008 boast on Larry King Live that the soon-to-open show would redefine magic. (It didn’t.) I tried not to factor in that he had physically threatened journalists asking him about his efforts to unduly influence the Miss USA pageant on his girlfriend’s behalf. Or that he had allowed a vicious gay slur to become a part of his act. Or that he absurdly lied on CNN that his show was the Strip’s best-seller.
It was a tall order, but I’ve changed my view on many shows and performers for the better, including reversing earlier negative opinions of Danny Gans, Celine Dion’s ...A New Day and Cirque’s Zumanity. I was ready. Tabula rasa, Criss.
Then Believe started and I realized my view was, in fact, hopelessly tainted. Angel does all the same old tricks—he’s in the box, then he’s not, then someone else is in the box, then birds appear—so my enjoyment hinged solely on the star’s likeability in a way that may be unique to magicians.
Unfortunately, knowing Angel impacted how I digested his work for the same reasons that the styles of elegant Lance Burton, goofy Mac King, earnest Nathan Burton and wry David Copperfield always win me over. My issues with Penn & Teller, too, come out of the fact that Penn Jillette always seems like such a too-cool-for-school jerk. Each act toils in essentially the same craft; it’s the delivery and personality that makes you willing to be entertained with tricks you’ve seen a thousand times.
In Angel’s case, his self-aggrandizement is ceaseless throughout the show, and that didn’t help me forget why I find him so irksome. We are expected to be impressed by his résumé before we get a chance to be impressed by his act, and I wasn’t. It’s sad, really, that he still pretends a fan in the crowd brought a long sheet that says “We Love You Criss” or some such nonsense on it. After more than two years, it’s notable that his so-called “Loyals”—one of whom was so rabid he once sent me gay-bashing texts for criticizing his hero—don’t actually bring such banners anymore. Angel invoked Houdini and Siegfried & Roy at least three times each and at least twice shilled for the goodies available for purchase later. No other A-list talent on the Strip ever does the latter because it’s so undignified.
By the time Angel pointed out the two Make-A-Wish kids lying in hospital beds in the audience—no doubt a thrill for those valiant, deserving fans—it just felt like another example of Angel acknowledging his own greatness and generosity. It was probably quite genuine, but there’s just so little about this guy that feels real.
So here’s the best I can do: Yes, the show is better and more coherent. Just axing the Cirquish scene where rabbit dancers eat human limbs was an improvement.
But is it good? No, not really. You can only adore Believe if (a) you love Angel or (b) you’re unaware of what else is already available in the genre on the Strip. Unfortunately, (a) I don’t and (b) I’m not.