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Vegas icons Angel, Dragone have a lot to prove with ‘Amystika’

Updated April 7, 2022 - 9:28 am

The new partnership production “Amystika” from Criss Angel and Franco Dragone at Planet Hollywood skips pluckily along in its early stages. A cast member portrays the impressionable young Criss, donning a ball cap and jersey. The kid dreams whimsically of being a star magician.

The youngster’s slumber invites images of grandeur, a giant locomotive and sweeping nighttime thunderstorm. The voice of the real Angel looms over the crowd, describing the ideas of his younger self.

Youthful Crisstopher has always been inspired by card tricks, so stage vet Stefan Vanel shows up to perform some dazzling card manipulation. Angel has always been mystified by escapism. So we are treated to a suspenseful escape from a water-torture cell, the familiar routine where the artist is shackled and needs to free himself before passing out.

We are impressed, though maybe not surprised, escape clocks in 3 minutes, 8 seconds.

Angel mentions that he’s fond of comedy in magic. He plays an ace here, with Four Queens comic magician Mike Hammer showing up to flay the crowd and bring audience members up for some traditional routines.

You’re not alone if you hadn’t anticipated a Dragone-Angel spectacle would lean into a Fremont Street headliner performing rope tricks.

But Hammer is wonderful, and the latest example of Angel’s oft-underappreciated recruiting skills. His comedy counterparts from “Mindfreak Live” “Maestro” Mateo Amieva and comic actress Penny Wiggins, furnished the laughs to counter-balance Angel’s dark themes at Luxor.

The show moves thoughtfully, from routine to routine, showing us the skeleton of what will become’s Angel’s career. This nuanced storytelling seems to come from Dragone’s famously textured touches. In fact, we would be fine with spending the full show watching the teenage Criss character magically grow into adulthood.

But the production cannot resist turning upside-down, as Angel’s voice somberly tells us he’s often drawn to magic’s more nightmarish qualities.

The show’s tenor radically shifts with an indoor tornado, sending debris flying through the audience. This is as convincing an outdoor scene inside a theater you will ever see. It’s “Storm” on steroids (for you longtime Vegas entertainment observers). The segment is lengthy and uncomfortable, certainly on purpose, and nearly intolerable. Pieces of theatrical trash lands in your drink, hair, hat, shirt, glasses, everywhere. You’ll find it in later in your socks.

As Hammer jokes afterward, kicking at the refuse, “A thousand dollars spent on debris in every show! But that’s what Criss wants!”

We soon meet up, finally, with Angel himself, playing the character who is his alter-ego, Xristos, a holdover from the “Mindfreak” production in the same theater. We have earlier described this cat as a mix of Heath Ledger’s Joker from “The Dark Night,” and Alice Cooper from his “Constrictor” album cover. He’s a survivor, though, moving unimpeded from show to show.

The devilish clown talks in sort of disturbing mumble. He happily slides a butcher knife through his arm. In a bloodbath segment, Xristos cuts his female sidekick in two with a giant electric saw. “I go through a lot of women,” Xristos tells the crowd. “But I always keep the lower part.”

That line, somehow, has survived three Angel productions.

This is all the result of the alliance Angel and Dragone have bolstered over the years, solidified as they performed Zoom fundraisers for Vegas entertainers during the COVID shutdown. As a primer for what this tandem has meant to entertainment in Vegas: Dragone is an all-time architect of today’s Las Vegas spectacle over the past three decades. The 69-year-old visionary helping Cirque take root on the Strip with “Mystere” and “O,” bringing Celine’s “A New Day …” to life at the Colosseum, and later helming another aquatic spectacular, “Le Reve” at Wynn Las Vegas.

Angel, becoming a Vegas magic deacon at age 55, spent a decade at Luxor in his rollercoaster partnership with Cirque, starting in 2008 with “Believe” and closing in 2018 with “Mindfreak Live.”

The two share an unmistakable link to Cirque’s past. Dragone, for one, says he is not motivated by returning to Las Vegas to surpass his former creations. “Of course, the competition is there, but this is not my motivation. Cirque du Soleil? I love them. We both started from scratch together.”

Angel, typically and eagerly, draws a comparison between his new show and a Cirque production. “It takes Cirque two or three years to put together a show of this magnitude. We put this together with our own money in less than six months from inception to our premiere.”

Angel and Dragone did make efficient use of that time by taking an existing character (Xristos) and building a significant piece of “Amystika” around him. The show, originally titled “Mr. Smiles & Molly,” was also delayed three times from its original November 2021 target date.

To explain its position in Angel’s double-header at Planet Hollywood, “Amystika” is billed as the prequel to “Criss Angel Mindfreak,” which is actually performed earlier in the evening. But don’t get hung up on trying to link these shows. Maybe “Amystika” will come to mind when you return to “Mindfreak,” but even those of us who have seen both shows will not easily fit these puzzle pieces together.

The production might be better advised to present “Amystika” itself as two parts, the dividing point being Xristos’ arrival. There are moments that are beguiling and charming, powerful and revealing. But then there’s this dive into a dark, goth portal that a lot of folks won’t want to follow.

At Planet Hollywood, Angel and Dragone have something to prove, that they have another hit show for Vegas. They need each other to prove it. “Amystika” is the vehicle. The show displays some fanciful work from both artists, earnest investment, passion and hard work. Maybe audiences will fall in line with the show’s abrupt shift, and fall in love with Xristos. It’s a lot to ask, but I’d show him the door. There is too much at stake.

Cool Hang Alert

Vegas artist Hal Savar hosts a songwriters’ showcase from 7 to 11 p.m. Sundays at The Strat’s Remix Lounge. Original music, every week, from a total of 21 local artists. No cover, and there might be some hits in the (Re)mix.

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His “PodKats!” podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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