John Katsilometes

[The Kats Report]

The Kats Report: The Linq prepares to roll out the Strip’s newest magic act

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On top of his new show at the Linq, Mat Franco has a two-hour behind-the-scenes NBC special airing September 17.
Chris Pizzello/AP

Mat Franco is seated at a card table, aptly enough, set up in front of the stage inside Crown Theater at the Rio. The young magician casually shuffles a freshly opened deck of playing cards while meeting with members of his production team. The group is prepping for a magic show on the Strip starring Franco, the reigning champion of America’s Got Talent.

Littering the floor are hundreds of cards—seven hundred, about—that have been fired from three cannons at the center of the stage. It’s all part of a show-stopping trick that does not actually stop the show, which is set to open for previews soon at the newly renovated Linq Theater.

The Rio’s Crown Theater, where not long ago guns of a different variety were used as props in a show starring a family of duck hunters, is today but a rehearsal space. It is also, at this moment, a giant conference room.

Franco shuffles his cards, over and over, then slaps the deck on the table. He scrawls a note onto a pad, then turns to one of his confidants, Johnny Thompson, the revered magician known as The Great Tomsoni and a consultant on the show.

“What do you think, some sleight-of-hand here?” Franco asks Thompson. The Great One thinks for a moment and offers: “I think some sleight-of-hand would work, just a little something to add to what you’re talking about.”

Franco flips the pen away and reaches for the deck, not diverting his eyes as he scans his notes. He holds the cards in his right hand, showing an ace of spades. He runs his left hand across the facing card, then back again in a smooth, seemingly unconscious motion. The card has changed. It’s no longer the ace of spades. It’s the ace of diamonds.

“Like that, you think?” he says. The Great Tomsoni nods and answers, “Yeah, simple.”

Wait. Wha-a?

The great ones make it look easy, and the 27-year-old Franco is one of those, verifiably. He took the top prize in the ninth season of AGT, beating thousands of starry-eyed hopefuls vying for a spot on the nationwide NBC talent competition. Franco is the only magician to win that contest, and as part of his victory haul he was awarded $1 million and his own headlining run on the Strip.

His show at the Linq, titled Magic Reinvented Nightly, is that show. Franco opens for previews on August 5, with his official premiere set for August 21. He follows two previous AGT winners to the Strip: Terry Fator at the Mirage, where he has headlined for six years in a theater named for him, and Michael Grimm, who records and performs at various clubs around town and is set for a tour of Switzerland from October through November.

A busy performer on college campuses for the past several years, Franco gained widespread fame during his AGT run, which covered June through September of last year. That name recognition is a must to move tickets, as Franco is not terrifically unique in his new position as a headlining magician in Las Vegas. The city has earned a deserved reputation as a magic mecca, with Franco joining David Copperfield at the MGM Grand, Criss Angel at Luxor and Jan Rouven at the Tropicana—and that’s just on one corner of the Strip.

Of course, Penn & Teller continue their remarkable run in their own theater at the Rio; Mac King still lords over Harrah’s with his impenetrable afternoon show. Elsewhere, magic unfolds on all levels: Murray Sawchuck plays Planet Hollywood’s Sin City Theatre, Mike Hammer is at Four Queens, Adam London at the D Las Vegas, Nathan Burton at Saxe Theater inside Planet Hollywood’s Miracle Mile Shops and Tommy Wind in his own financed room at the old Boulevard Theater on the Strip.

But Franco owns the distinctive momentum of national TV exposure, the zeal of youth, good looks, a quick wit and an inherently confident stage manner. As Franco recalls, he has never wanted to be anything but a magician since he was 4 years old, when he saw a TV show featuring “a bunch of magicians, and I don’t remember who they were,” and was summarily transfixed. He made his debut during a show-and-tell session in kindergarten, performing a routine with a shrinking magic wand, a ball and a vase and “some thimble magic,” as he remembers.

“To perform is ingrained for me,” he says. “I’ve never had that huge fear of public speaking or any of that, and I think that’s because I started when I was too young to know there was supposed to be pressure.”

As he developed his stage chops, Franco visited Vegas and became a devotee of many of the magicians who work around town. He studied with sleight-of-hand master Jeff McBride, missing two weeks of school in the seventh grade in his home town of Johnston, Rhode Island, to learn from that master. At age 15, Franco appeared onstage at the Riviera, an invited rising star in a show titled Stars of Tomorrow and hosted by the Society of American Magicians.

Franco says his success is “incidental,” as he has honed his craft and performed as frequently as possible, advancing as demand for his appearances has increased. “I never dreamed anything this big, but AGT just opened my eyes to a lot of crazy opportunities.”

Franco’s next stage, aside from the new haunt at the Linq, is a two-hour NBC special airing September 17, a behind-the-scenes account of his ride to Las Vegas mixed with some magic performances. Penn & Teller, Neil Patrick Harris, Heidi Klum, Jason Mraz and Rob Gronkowski are the guests. It will be the first network TV show to star a magician since David Blaine hosted Real or Magic on ABC in November 2013.

The show at the Linq, the network special, and any subsequent fame of large scope are all owed to Franco’s victory on AGT. “Before I won, I thought maybe I’d get some recognition and some great video out of the process,” he says. “I never thought that I’d keep getting voted through. It’s kind of like being in a dream, but you know it is happening … and when you win, you just can’t go back to what you were doing. You’re in a completely different mind-set.”

The Strip is a competitive place, for sure, but Franco is in an advantageous spot. He’s holding all the cards.

Mat Franco: Magic Reinvented Nightly Begins August 5; Thursday-Tuesday, 7 p.m., $40-$100. Linq Theater, 702-794-3261.

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