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Look twice: After seven years on the Strip, Criss Angel isn’t done making magic

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Photo: Christopher DeVargas

There was a time when professional magicians donned the tux and tails, tapped a top hat with a wand and professed to make a rabbit appear from its empty interior. Voila! But tonight is not such a time. And Criss Angel is not such a magician.

The star of the Luxor’s stuffed-with-illusions show Believe struts to the middle of the stage, wearing a black leather jacket, thick strands of silver dangling from his neck. His black hair is streaked crimson, as if his skull is bleeding.

Ten minutes or so have passed since the start of the show, as Angel’s support cast—led by his comically brilliant mini-me Maestro, portrayed by Mateo Amieva—have happily entertained the crowd. It’s a Sunday evening, and the place is about packed. Fans cheer when Angel strides prodigiously to center stage. He scans the dark and shouts, “I can’t hear you!”

Whoa. Okay, then. The crowd matches his energy with a dutiful roar. It’s as if Angel has put them on notice: This might be a stage show, but it’s also a participation sport.

Believe is a hard-rock experience led by a man who mixes magic with Metallica. Over the course of 90 minutes the athletically fit 47-year-old performs an odyssey of illusions. He escapes in just 30 seconds from a straitjacket while hanging by a hook above his fans. In one jaw-dropping moment, Angel seems to vanish from beneath a drape—his hands waving at the audience through narrow slits—and emerges in the crowd, seated next to a nonplussed attendee who has suddenly lost his date.

The acts move at high velocity, backed by a rollicking DJ and live musicians and Angel’s own bellicose narrative.

“Everybody up!” he calls out, breathless, face shining with sweat. “I want to hear the loudest section of the audience!”

Angel always elicits that response—the standing, the cheering. It seems not enough that his magic commands attention. The magician himself commands attention. He hasn’t spent his entire life working to be the best magician of his generation for you to sit on your hands and gaze passively.

No, Believe is an all-encompassing exercise in intensity. And so is its star.

*****

Criss Angel’s production at Luxor, famously the first Cirque du Soleil collaboration with a living superstar, celebrates its seventh year there on Halloween. Through a headlining residency that has often seemed as harrowing as his sky-high straitjacket escape, Angel has achieved some genuine show-business magic on the Strip simply by keeping a show afloat for this long. Some very good ones on the Boulevard, even another Cirque production (Viva Elvis at Aria), have fallen far short of that mark.

Angel’s magic empire continues to expand, too, with a series of live productions outside the Luxor. He has developed touring show The Supernaturalists, a project a decade in the making that features nine magicians of varying styles, all handpicked by Angel: Landon Swank, a contestant from America’s Got Talent; top female illusionist Krystyn; “The Mentalist” Banachek; escape artist Spencer Horsman; “The Manipulator” Stefan Vanel; “The Street Magician” Adrian Vega; “The Dog Conjuror” Johnny Dominguez; “The Great Maestro,” played by Mateo’s brother, Angel; and the esteemed “Fifi,” played by Penny Wiggins, longtime assistant to the Amazing Johnathan.

The Supernaturalists enjoyed a promising, monthlong run at Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut in June and July. The show opened this month in East Brunswick, New Jersey, and moves through the East Coast, Midwest and South through the first week of November. As creator and producer, Angel, who appears by way of video cut-ins in each of The Supernaturalists’ productions, is making a characteristically brazen attempt to create his own umbrella brand for magic, similar to Cirque’s dominance of circus culture. “It’s ambitious, but what Cirque has been able to do is take something from the street and make it a worldwide phenomenon,” Angel says. “Magic can be that way, too.”

The Supernaturalists’ booking follows appearances by Angel himself (in Believe and also his new stage show Mindfreak Live) at Foxwoods, the president of which is former Luxor president Felix Rappaport, who brought Angel and Believe to the Strip in 2008.

As is often the case, Angel frames his vision in statistics. The Supernaturalists is a great show, simply and verifiably, because it has moved a ton of tickets.

“Felix is actually bringing Supernaturalists back to Foxwoods. He’s done Believe, he’s done Mindfreak Live, he’s done The Supernaturalists and it was so successful, selling over 40,000 tickets. I think it broke every record for a premiere run,” the magician says. “So, he’s bringing it back November and December. It’s pretty amazing, and that’s not because it was luck or anything, but because there’s no substitute for hard work. Hard work with talented people who don’t have an attitude, who have the desire to create the very best that we’re all capable of creating at that very moment.”

Rappaport confirms that every performance of a Criss Angel show at his hotel’s 1,400-seat Fox Theater has sold out, a total of 48 straight dates between Mindfreak and The Supernaturalists. “It’s a win for Foxwoods, it’s a win for Criss and it’s also a win for Cirque,” Rappaport says. “During these appearances he’s cross-promoting his show at the Luxor, adding exposure and adding to his audience in Las Vegas. His work on The Supernaturalists alone is very impressive, and he’ll be starring in the show when it returns in November.”

Expecting that Angel’s work and attention on The Supernaturalists has come at the expense of Believe would be far off-target. Angel never halts the development and evolution of the show at the center of his professional existence, which is due for a major overhaul—and soon.

*****

Believe survived a staggering start, and Angel himself weathered some early reviews—from audience members and the media—that would have crippled lesser individuals. The show began as a fascinating merger of Cirque’s acrobatic wizardry and the spellbinding magic of Angel, who by the opening was the universally recognized star of A&E’s Mindfreak. But the attempt to create a plot featuring ill-fated bunnies, including an oversized rabbit named Lucky, amid familiar Cirque acrobatics and elements (a version of the vertical wall from , for example) was roundly derided.

“We obviously had some big challenges, and I could have either walked away or rolled up my sleeves,” Angel says. “I said to Cirque, ‘Okay, now I’m going to try to do what I asked to do in the beginning. [They] said, ‘If you want to do five-minute tests for us to see what you would do with the show as a writer and as a director, we’ll look at it now.”

The moment was pivotal for Angel, who took control of Believe in a sink-or-swim period lasting several months. Gone were the bunnies and many of the Cirque elements, excised for Angel’s own magic creations. The show has become tighter, moves more fluidly and is doubtlessly among the more ambitious productions on the Strip today. And that solid footing has enabled Angel and Cirque to consider what the next three years of Angel’s contract with the entertainment company and the hotel will entail. Even with the constant movement in Believe, an overhaul is overdue.

“We’re in the process of working through that with Criss right now,” says Jerry Nadal, vice president of Cirque du Soleil’s resident shows. “If we were to change Believe, what is that going to look like or be called? The dynamics of the market, the demographics, have changed immensely since we opened. We’re always looking at how we can branch out and change things up, to give us a new audience, and to keep those who see the show coming back.”

That helps dispel rumors that Cirque and Angel have been working on a deal that would release him from his contract earlier than the 10-year mark. Such talk surfaced when Angel began making trips to Foxwoods (and regularly selling out the theater). But he’s determined to log at least a decade on the Strip, which would place him in a rarefied class of magicians who have prospered in this city.

*****

When Angel opened at the Luxor, he was famous, but he wasn’t as seasoned as many illusionists who took over their own full-scale productions. He was also viewed as a magician who had gained fame quickly, as a result of his TV show. Onstage, he jokes about the many years he spent becoming an “overnight success,” but the hype behind his pairing with Cirque was considerable. It didn’t help that Cirque dumped millions of dollars into a show any magician would have dearly loved to headline. Angel’s peers often frame their assessment of his stage acumen by saying, “He has a lot of money, so …”

But well-established, traditional magicians do give him high praise for growing into an effective showman. “From the beginning, the thing that Criss had on television was, he popped. He connected. He communicated with the person at home,” says Lance Burton, the former longtime Monte Carlo headliner. “I’ve watched Criss over the years, and he has grown as an artist, as a stage performer. That is how it is supposed to work.”

Aside from Angel, the one element of Believe that has survived from its inception is the bird act conceived by Joaquin Ayala, a highly regarded magician and artist who spent four seasons with Angel on Mindfreak. Ayala has known him since both were teenagers, when Angel showed up at a magic convention in Toluca, Mexico.

“This guy looked like David Lee Roth doing magic. Nobody else looked like him. He was like a rock singer doing tricks,” Ayala recalls. He adds that Angel set himself apart on TV by adding high production value to street magic. “He took what David Blaine did with magic on the street and added big illusions. It used to be just cups, cards and plates, very small tricks, but Criss was the first to do big illusions—walking through a wall or levitating someone—and do them outside, under sunlight, in an organic atmosphere. That was different from what anyone was doing.”

That set him up for a powerfully hyped debut in Las Vegas, but Angel allows that he made a series of public missteps early in his run—flipping off the camera during the Miss USA pageant and ripping celebrity gossip overlord Perez Hilton from the Luxor stage.

Moreover, Angel has not always been easy to work for or with, gaining a reputation as a demanding and strident taskmaster. He is well-aware of his fame and the value of his time and image, and he attends to every detail of his empire, centered on his 60,000-square-foot Las Vegas warehouse, factory and rehearsal space. Is he a micromanager?

“I’m more of a macro guy, but I also am micro. I would say I’m not as bad as I used to be, because I can’t be, and I have so many things going on right now, and so many people working with me,” he says, as if working out the accurate answer mid-sentence. “But yes, I would say that I’m somebody who, if something doesn’t work, I want to know why, because the buck stops here. I sign every paycheck every two weeks for everybody. I want to keep my eye on the ball. I want to know what’s going on, and I think that’s why I’ve been able to maintain my success, because I don’t rest.”

Angel’s work ethic is at once legendary and self-evident. Nobody achieves his level of success nor survives in such a competitive industry without working hard. But time after time, those who know him describe his drive as something exceptional.

“I don’t know if I’ve seen someone who is as hard a worker as Criss is ever in show business,” Burton says. “He has his own show, which is enough. Sometimes that’s overwhelming, just handling your own show. But he’s got these other magic shows that he’s producing; he’s done TV. I’m in awe of him. He must sleep an hour a night.”

Angel says it stems from his father’s years as proprietor of a coffee shop in the family’s hometown of Hempstead on Long Island in New York. “My dad used to say to me, ‘Christopher, no matter what you want to do in life, you have to understand every aspect of the job in order for you to be good at what you do,’” Angel says. “My dad was the dishwasher, my dad was the owner, my dad was the cashier, my dad was the busboy, my dad was the grill man. He did it all, and he wasn’t too good and didn’t have a big ego, and so it’s the same with me.”

Nonetheless, Angel is conscious of his image, visually and in public conversation. When he sees a photo of himself being considered for publication, he says, “That’s me, right there. It’s a big, ‘F*ck you,’ you know?” When it’s suggested the word “you” could be changed to “yeah,” he recalls a T-shirt worn by the Amazing Johnathan with that phrase. “I gotta be different, you know?” Angel says, grinning.

One former member of the Believe operation, lead video and projection technician William Swaney, says, “I understand there are people who have problems with him, and I’m not saying those aren’t valid because I don’t know those situations, but he was nothing but good to me. He was always pretty bullish on things, but it’s his name on the marquee.” Swaney worked for five years on Cirque shows, the past year and a half with Angel. “He isn’t for the niceties all the time, but knows what he wants and will do what it takes to get it done. I love the guy. He’s a hustler, and that’s what Vegas is all about.”

The hustle has certainly helped keep Angel out of any serious trouble. He reminds that he has never been a chronically troublesome person. “I have never in my life got sent down to the principal’s office when I went to school. I never got detention, I’ve never been arrested, I never even got a misdemeanor,” he says.

So he’s never been handcuffed outside his act? “Never.”

But staying out of trouble doesn’t mean you don’t have any. Angel has dealt with conflict, and stirred some up. And he doesn’t apologize. “I’m very passionate. I’m a very loving and very generous human being. I will do anything for somebody, I really will. But when someone tries to take advantage or somebody crosses a line with me, I don’t take anybody’s sh*t. I just don’t. I won’t put up with it. Maybe that’s something that can work to my advantage, or disadvantage. I don’t know, but that’s how it is.”

*****

No doubt, his experiences in the public eye and under its scrutiny have shaped Angel’s posture. He has a habit of reciting career achievements—more TV hours logged than any other magician, for instance—that can be taken as cocky, even if they happen to be factual. The only time he mentions such rival performers as David Copperfield and Penn & Teller from the stage is to note that his Internet video impressions far surpass theirs or Blaine’s or any other magician’s. Angel expects that when anyone is asked to list the top-five magicians worldwide, he would be among them.

Featured on national TV for a long time and on billboards around Las Vegas throughout his run, his visibility makes him an easy target. Penn & Teller have long used Angel as a comedic foil, in effigy, lugging to the stage a life-size cutout in Mindfreak pose. They even brought it to their successful Broadway run this summer, tossing “junk jewelry” over the figure’s neck “to make him seem more realistic.”

The bit draws laughs in Vegas and in Manhattan, where Angel’s menacing expression and goth attire provide a funny contrast to the suited, smart-ass attitude of Penn & Teller. But the moment also reinforces the reality, that satire works only when the subject is universally recognized.

“When you’re out there and you’re the No. 1 guy who is in magic, then you’re going to have other people taking shots at you,” Angel says.

He’s seen it before—being satirized on Saturday Night Live and in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. Does it hurt his feelings to have prominent entertainers taking those shots?

“No!” he says, eyes flashing. “I think it’s great. Keep on doing it. If you think that I’m that relevant and you want to talk about me? I would never even talk about them or anyone else, because when people come to see me, they don’t want to hear about them.”

For his part, Penn Jillette offered no comment about Angel for this story, saying in a text, “I don’t know him well enough to comment.” He did bring up the long-ago appearance by Penn & Teller on Mindfreak, in 2005. “We liked being on his show and he’s nice to us, but I don’t really know him.” As for the cutout, the verbose member of Penn & Teller said only, “It’s a joke.”

*****

Believe begins again in an hour, and Criss Angel is wearing dark sweats and a ball cap stitched with his familiar “CA” logo.

As always, Angel is the focus of personal and professional intrigue. He has recently been introducing Chloe Crawford as she sits in the audience, saying, “You’ll be hearing big things from her very soon.”

Crawford is a budding, British-born magician who reached the finals of Britain’s Got Talent. She’s a beautiful woman, a Playboy model who until this month was a member of the cast of Fantasy at the Luxor and was also married to Planet Hollywood afternoon magician Murray Sawchuck.

Whatever specific plans Angel has for Crawford haven’t been announced, but there’s clearly an idea for her to be part of his growing team of magicians, should he further develop The Supernaturalists or even his own show. Crawford, whose career arc has been compared to that of Angel’s ex-girlfriend Holly Madison, wants to expand her presence in magic. Angel has the experience, energy and resources to help make that happen. He wants to develop magicians who are serious about the craft.

“Magic is an amazing art form, and it needs to have artists who want to perpetuate the art form and bring it to the next generation,” he says. “They need to go out there and create these experiences and transform them for the day and age that we live in.”

Angel has forcefully strived for that, but he can’t perform his most challenging physical acts indefinitely. The straitjacket, for instance, is not in every show due to its high degree of difficulty. New productions like The Supernaturalists are expanding, with Angel serving far more as the producer of the show rather than the star.

He continues to value privacy, an idea that has long been folly as legions of “Loyals” struggle between entertainment and reality. The files of strange and unnerving incidents involving these fans at the Luxor have filled four binders. Earlier this year a young man found his way into Angel’s dressing room, with the star shoving the intruder out the door and locking it behind him. Another fan, who seemed to have some level of mental illness, turned up at Angel’s home.

For these reasons, he pleads not to have the finer details of his fascinating personal life made public. As they say in magic, more will be revealed. And Angel is, at his core, a magician.

“I have had two passions in my life: music and magic,” he says. “Magic gives power because, whether you’re a child or an adult, you know how to do something and you’re performing it for someone who doesn’t. Whatever age they are, you have the ability and understanding to do something they can’t comprehend … you become the center of attention, and people begin to embrace you and like you and want to be around you.”

To those who don’t appreciate his creations or ambitions or jewelry, all Angel can say is, “I don’t pretend to be something that I’m not. I think you have to be authentic, and you have to be real. I’m a real person, and I will express myself accordingly and tell people what I think.”

Pulling at a hole in the knee of his sweatpants, he adds, “I mean, look at me. I’m not dressed up in any bling or trying to impress you. I’m just me.”

Criss Angel Believe Wednesday-Saturday, 7 & 9:30 p.m.; Sunday, 7 p.m.; $65-$143. Luxor, 702-262-4400.

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