Review: Steve Cohen’s Theater of Wonder

Steve Cohen’s Theater of Wonder
Jan 12, 2012 @ Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall
Written by Steve Cohen and Mark Levy; Directed by Mark Levy

A recent MUM article on Steve Cohen outlined the particulars of the Carnegie Hall venue: lack of backstage storage space, inability to hang things from the walls, no animals, no liquids, and union performers. So it was with great interest on Thursday night that I made my first visit to Weill Recital Hall, a 268 person theater and host for one-night-only of Mr. Cohen’s one-man show.  How would he make the transition from a 30-person show at the famed Walldorf Astoria to this larger venue; from a parlor 3 rows deep at the Walldorf to a hall 15 rows deep, with another 5 in an inaccessible balcony?  Would he introduce assistants or larger props to focus the attention of the audience for 1.5 hours on this larger stage?

This is, after all, Carnegie Hall. Could you imagine another venue more suitable for Steve Cohen – the millionaire’s magician?  Without a doubt, he understands his image.

Before entering, guests were asked to write their favorite drink on a piece of paper.  It was a clue that his think-a-drink routine would soon appear, despite earlier reports of a ban on liquids. Each guest also received a sealed red envelope. Both were signs that his involvement of spectators, the backbone of his Waldorf Astoria act, wouldn’t be diminished by the increased audience size.  Indeed, before the night had handed, I would wager 45 spectators had an opportunity to participate directly in the show. With a nod to the Recital Hall’s traditional function, guests then walked in to a 3-piece string ensemble performing, until Mr. Cohen entered and took his bow.

The show was, in fact, his current parlor show writ large(r).. I’ve always been baffled at how Vernon or McBride could appear on the stage of Radio City Music Hall without appearing like a flea on the back of the back of an elephant.  Charles Morritt was known to perform a trick with coins and coin purses.  Imagine the courage it must haven taken Morritt to stand upon the largest stages of his time, and introduce a trick by displaying four coins.  Mr. Cohen does him one better; he performs a 5 minute routine with a single quarter.  Yes – you read that right – a trick with a single quarter and the simplest of secrets, to sustain the attention of hundreds.  Stage be damned.

Completion of an in-the-hands effect performed with all audience members

Trouble is – it doesn’t quite work (yet).

And so we run into a few of the difficulties of the show.  Mr. Cohen is not (yet) a Storyteller. He is enthusiastic, charismatic, gracious and charming, to wit.  These are the characteristics that appeal to his chosen clientele of the wealthy. But while we could listen to Ricky Jay spin a yarn of gambling history for 15 minutes before he even picks up the pack, Mr. Cohen does not (yet) have this capacity. And so this incredibly intriguing premise of his – a spectator becoming the time-travelling inspiration for H G Wells’ creation of The Time Machine – falls flat.

Which isn’t to say he can’t hold the audiences attention – he can and did.  But he receives this attention through force of patter, the relentless onslaught of enthusiasm which defines his persona, and the knowledge that you may be picked next to participate!  I left the hour and a half show exhausted from the focus it required. Mr. Cohen must have collapsed.  But a breath – “room to breathe” as they say – for both Mr. Cohen and his audience would have been a welcome relief. Not performing a silent sequence to music – taking advantage of that 3-piece string ensemble present throughout – seems a missed opportunity.  Such a piece, placed just prior to the final routine or two would have put the finale into sharp relief – a pause before the crescendo. Again – room to breathe. If the script for the show was cut in half and a few tricks removed, the audience might have appreciated his efforts even more.

Before we leave the Time Traveller sequence, one additional comment.   The reason Morritt and Cohen can pull off a close-up trick on a full stage, is that the selected audience member serves as a proxy to the audience of the miracles taking place.  While the audience can’t see the quarter, they can see the audience member’s expressions and reaction to the events unfolding.  The true secret to such a performance is not the gimmick, but in the selection of an expressive audience member.  Yet there is a problem in Steve’s construction of this trick.  For the audience member on stage is selected randomly by yet another audience member. This may be necessary to ensure the “randomization” for the prediction payoff, but that payoff is 30 seconds in a routine of 5 minutes. And so he will always run the risk of what happened Thursday night – where a terrified woman, who barely spoke English, serves awkwardly as a proxy for us all. Mostly we wanted her to be allowed to return to her seat.  A “have we ever met before” to a hand-selected audience member might have been the safer choice.

Speaking of the audience, it was a strange mix of wealthy (his usual clientel) and…well…children. Children of the wealthy?  Perhaps, but children nonetheless.  Many were of the busy-flourishing-in-the-lobby type.  I suspect they are an unusual sight at his parlor shows.  In the anonymity of a larger crowd, parents must have felt a bit more comfortable extending the invitation to their interested children.  Which isn’t a problem per-se. However it will be interesting to see how Mr. Cohen retains his “Millionaire’s Magician” persona and the exclusive image of his show if he chooses to pursue more of such events with larger audience sizes.

One can forgive all of this – it was after all, but a single night’s performance.  The uniqueness of the event, the distinction of the venue, the presence of so many family and friends, must have weighed heavily.  And with that nervousness the speed of his delivery increased.  It happens to all but the most practiced of performers.  The fear of taking so much time going to and from the audience members, usually just a step away, could not have helped.  And who can be so practiced for a single one-time event?

For all these distractions, Mr. Cohen remains among my favorite performers to watch.  Let’s be clear.  In the end, there are but a dozen magicians in the world who could have pulled off an event as well as he did. His classical style, his technical prowess, and his clear love of performing place him among at the top of my lists. He could have chosen to take it easy, perform a self-working trick or two – but he did not. As with his Letterman performance, he chose the difficult routines. In one routine, he appears to be peeking a spectator’s selection, while simultaneously finding and controlling another named card to the face of a previously shuffled deck.  He does this four times consecutively without missing a beat.  He used two pulls, separated across 3 tricks without ever stepping offstage (remember, there was no curtain). There is no question that he has “chops” of the highest order. And disguised so well by his charm.

But his foremost quality is in his treatment of the audience. Ricky Jay doesn’t care what you think of him. You get the sense he would perform identically if an audience wasn’t even present in the theater.  David Copperfield is kind to you because he needs to be.  But one walks away from a Steve Cohen show knowing he is genuinely interested in forging a link with his audience.  He treats every single member of his audience with utmost respect kindness. It’s the reason I suspect the rich flock to him, and the reason he is my recommendation to any New Yorker who asks what to go see.

So what was performed? The sequences were largely his parlor act restaged. Tommy Wonder’s “The Ring, The Watch, and the Wallet” (AKA Hold-up) opener.  Card tricks. The Ring in Walnut (in egg, in orange) sequence we saw him present flawlessly on Letterman. Linking Finger Rings.  Pulse stopping.  “Lip reading” – another card sequence. The Rising Cards.  Q&A/Mindreading routine. Finally, an in-the-hands effect using cards from the red envelope folks received at the start.  And probably 10 others I’ve already forgotten.  A few highlights:

Any Drink Called For.  His now-signature “think-a-drink”  Tea Kettle routine.  Such an unlikely star. It’s source: a forgotten chestnut from the pages of Robert-Houdin’s Memoires and Hoffman’s Modern Magic. Indeed, Devant Devant laid bare his teakettle secret in clinical detail in Secrets of My Magic (p. 119) – a method I suspect is surprisingly similar to the one used by Mr. Cohen today.(Interested readers should seek out “From Keg To Kettle” By Jay Palmer in Sphinx Vol. 50, #6/Dec 1951, p.231 for one history of the effect.)

As Jim Steinmeyer writes in Conjuring Anthology (P. 326):

It’s a trick so truly old that it’s new again.  It was so old by 1905 that David Devant reintroduced it to a new generation.  He performed it with a teakettle, instead of a bottle, and capitalized on the Magic Kettle-Liquid Nitrogen demonstrations that were then the rage in music halls. Robert-Houdin, Robin, Anderson, Levante, Charles Hoffmann, and Kalanag also performed versions of the “any-drink-called-for” act.

As it gets older, it gets better. More of a novelty, more of a mystery.

Steinmeyer first wrote that in August 1999 Magic Magazine, but no one until Mr. Cohen listened (he says on his blog he began performing the routine in 2001). Since then, Mr. Cohen has truly made the kettle his own – and it’s a shocker for laymen.  Gone are concoctions prepared with essences and bitters in the glass – Mr. Cohen pours frappacino’s, smoothies, tea (hot or cold!), and mixed drinks for our Starbucks generation.  I am shocked Owen Magic hasn’t advertised a teakettle at $899 each to fulfill the coming legions of copycats…

The Rising Cards.  When I saw the parlor act years back, the rising cards was not in the show.  What a treat.  And destined to be another Cohen signature item.  In this case he takes the familiar – among the commonest card tricks and presents it so cleanly, so clearly, so effortlessly. He has boiled it down to the essence of the trick.  Isolated on upturned glasses, sealed with a tumbler, and ultimately covered in a bell jar, the cards not just rise but follow his command.  He seems to use the Hooker Card Rise as the reference design without all the confusion of that floating bear head Miltiades…His ghost patter line, the monocle, and (especially) the not-quite-blue-but-definitely-awkward-with-kids-around joke of “tickling” the ghost could all go. That aside, the clean handling of the trick is phenomenal and unlikely to be topped by others.

The Q&A Routine.  I once read with curiosity of the Question & Answer act of “Alexander, The Man Who Knows” (Claude Conlin).  I just couldn’t understand how he managed to make an entire show out of answering questions written down earlier by audience members. All those complex billet readers and prompters in The Life and Mysteries of the Celebrated Dr. “Q”. I just didn’t get what the big deal was. Didn’t folks see through what he was up to?  If it is supposed to be mindreading, why write the questions down? Did they really believe the performer was reading their mind – or just reading their billet from afar?  I still don’t know the answers to those questions, but I don’t ask them anymore now that I have seen the response it received from Steve Cohen.

The finale.  Throughout the evening, Mr. Cohen introduced the audience to various relevant Japanese words.  He received gasps, not from a trick, but from his clear prowess in Japanese calligraphy written on large easels in the back of the stage.  Incorporating this truly unique skill of Mr. Cohen into the storyline of the show was one of the smartest touches of the night.  The ending used these words in a unique way, one that holds real promise as a finale. However I’m not sure whether the method fell flat or there was an error in this performance– but a “secret” was obvious to us all where there should have been nothing at all. It was such a charming conclusion to such an enjoyable evening, however, that we all blinked and forgave.

I suspect we’ll be seeing more of this show at exclusive venues throughout the US in months to come.  Well done, Steve.

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3 thoughts on “Review: Steve Cohen’s Theater of Wonder

  1. The Waldorf regular show (don’t know about the $250 midnight show) is more like 80-90 people and at least 6 if not 8 rows. It’s hard to see the card tricks if you’re not close. Good show except the cheesy I know how to google mentalist stuff.

    I didn’t see this show because I just didn’t see a mostly close-up act travelling to such a large venue.

    On think-a-drink, don’t all musicians recycle. I remember seeing Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants and he did a trick I think it was called The Four Queens and the patter was good but I found the trick referred to in some magic book and the patter appeared lifted verbatim or pretty close.

    • You are probably right re: the Waldorf audience size. I saw it early, the crowds might not have been there yet or my memory may have faded.

      I give the Teakettle history, not to denigrate the performance, but to show how he’s given new life to what is truly “old clothes”. It’s testament to his skills that he’s found relevance in this classic. I didn’t mean to imply it was “recycled”.

      Re: Ricky Jay’s patter for The Four Queens – I believe the book you refer to is Erdnase’s “Expert at the Card Table.” Ricky Jay does quote it verbatim. For a magician to quote Erdnase, is I suppose like akin to an actor quoting Shakespeare: If you’re going to do it onstage, you’d better know what you are doing. And he does.

      Thanks for the comments.

  2. Pingback: The Mystic Teakettle – for sale | Conjuring Books

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