When Penn & Teller reopen their two-decade-strong show at the Rio in a few weeks, it’s safe to expect it’ll be just as edgy and funny as it has always been. There will be some familiar tricks in the mix, including some classic illusions and material from earlier in the duo’s 40-plus years performing together. Other prominent elements, like the finale from recent years involving the fantastical appearance of an “elephant” named Elsie, might not be in the cards.
In last month’s announcement that the show would return to the Penn & Teller Theater on April 22, Penn Jillette said, “We haven’t been onstage in over a year, so we don’t know whether the audience will be coming to see us do miracles, or just to see if we remember which way to face onstage.”
Of course, Jillette always jokes about everything, but bringing back a big magic show in Las Vegas during the pandemic is serious business. All forms of live entertainment are dealing with specific challenges and different ways of adapting to current restrictions and altered audience expectations. But Vegas magicians are tied together by the high volume of crowd interaction involved in their presentations. The Elsie trick is special because dozens of audience members volunteer to surround the space in which she magically appears.
If anyone can shift gears quickly and work around pandemic-era challenges, it’s sure to be Penn & Teller, whose creativity has been bubbling up throughout 2020’s seemingly infinite downtime.
“I think it will be an all-new show,” Jillette said late last year. “Teller and I have kept within each other’s bubbles. We’ve been writing like freaks. It’s very much like the ’70s, where we’re in my living room building stuff out of cardboard and gaffer’s tape. … It’s kind of nice to be two guys in a room again trying to think of wacky stuff to do onstage.”
Mat Franco also recently announced his return, set for April 29 at the Linq, and the America’s Got Talent champion-turned-Strip headliner has reportedly revamped the entire production. Producer and director Brian Burke, who collaborated with Franco on AGT and has also worked on Celine Dion and Lionel Richie’s Vegas shows, along with Le Rêve at Wynn and Celestia at the Strat, chipped in on the changes.
Magician Murray Sawchuck, who returned to action in November and is currently performing in his own show at the Laugh Factory at the Trop and as the comedy guest star in the Fantasy female revue at Luxor, has also adapted his act. “I’ve started to buy larger decks of cards, so when the audience picks a card from a distance, they can still see it,” he says. “I probably made seven or eight major changes to the show, because I’m used to working with people in the audience so much. Fortunately, I’ve built up about three hours of material, so I can use different things when we had it narrowed down to what we can do.”
Piff the Magic Dragon has been onstage at the Flamingo most of the time since October, and David Copperfield, like many of his Strip peers, started up in November, paused and then returned in March.
Comedy represents a huge part of Sawchuck’s act, which presents another set of challenges. “I was just talking to Carrot Top about that, because for a while, we were doing shows for just 100 people,” Sawchuck says. “If you have 100 people in a small comedy club, you can destroy. But in that 1,800-seat theater [where Carrot Top performs at Luxor] all spread out, it’s almost like everyone’s watching their own individual show, and they react individually. When one of us laughs, everyone else in our group is going to chuckle, too. It’s magnetic. When you’re onstage, you’re farther away from those reactions.”
Like his close friends Penn & Teller, Mac King has been headlining his own show (at Harrah’s) for 20 years. His highly comedic, family-friendly performance is unique among Strip magic shows, and that’s part of the reason he didn’t do a lot of virtual shows during the shutdown.
“It will be interesting to see what the show looks like, because before, I had so many people from the audience coming up onstage with me,” says King, who’s shooting for a comeback date of June 1 “If I went back tomorrow, that wouldn’t be able to happen. I don’t know how comfortable people will feel doing that or how comfortable I’ll feel, or if the regulations will even allow it.
“My show is so interactive and so dependent upon the audience and me playing off them. It’s really hard to translate that into the virtual world. It’s not that I don’t like it, but it doesn’t feel as fun for me.”