Review: ‘Vitaly: An Evening of Wonders’ at The Westside Theatre

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Russian-born, Israeli-raised, and now-Canadian resident Vitaly Beckman, known to US audiences from his successful appearance on the hit TV show “Penn & Teller: Fool Us” (he did!), is making his New York debut with a limited summer engagement of Vitaly: An Evening of Wonders at the Westside Theatre (the same venue where the renowned magicians he stumped on television premiered in the city more than 30 years ago). Presented by Daryl Roth, the original performance, created by Beckman and co-written with Doug Bennett, combines sleight-of-hand tricks, mentalist feats, and illusions of telekinesis and metamorphosis with playful banter, audience participation, video projections and live-feed camerawork, in his signature style of intimate-scale magic for our digital age.

Vitaly Beckman. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

More familiar and casual than grandiose or spectacular, Vitaly’s emphasis is on the art of magic and the magic in art, both of which he loved and practiced since childhood. Though his act contains the usual hands-free transporting of objects through the air (in this case, apples) and the transference of playing cards, identifiably signed and cut in front of us by different audience members, from the hands of one to the other, it also includes some unique illusions that he invented and designed. Using a white sketchpad and black marker, and a sheet of green paper, Beckman creates line drawings of flowers and leaves that turn colors, then transform into the actual flora and float off the page. He creates imagery with a paintbrush that paints by itself, and makes figures appear and disappear from photographs and drivers’ licenses, collected from willing audience members, by rubbing them (if you have any concerns about your name, address, and date of birth on your license being seen by everyone in attendance, you shouldn’t participate in this segment).

Featuring the same introductory jokes about his background and the same card-and-photo trick that he performed for Penn & Teller in 2016 (turning a still image in a photo album into a miniature motion picture), and using large-screen projections of his small-scale close-up illusions as a backdrop (ostensibly to enable greater visibility of the act from the house seats), the show at times makes us feel as if we were watching it on TV, not right before our eyes. Other shortcomings in the production are groan-inducing running gags (about charging audience participants for their souvenir props and photos, and for the return of their drivers’ licenses) and tricks that lack variety (making figures vanish and reappear in photos; bringing pictures and drawings to life), which become redundant and begin to elicit more thoughts of “how?” than “wow!”

Vitaly Beckman. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

There were other elements of the live show that didn’t quite live up to Vitaly’s self-described “wonders,” including one failed attempt at serving their chosen drinks to three volunteers from the audience while blindfolded, with metal coins taped to his eyes (he got the first one wrong at the performance I attended, but the audience nonetheless responded with applause for getting “two out of three right”). And a trick with plastic water bottles standing upright for him, but repeatedly rolling over for an assistant from the audience, was at one point shaky, due to his obvious misplacement of the bottle in the exact position required on the table. But despite these issues, Vitaly retained his cool, his charm, and a personal connection with the audience.

If you’d like to witness his illusions firsthand, or maybe even be a part of his magic, Vitaly: An Evening of Wonders offers the opportunities, in an original show that will indeed leave you wondering.

Running Time: Approximately 70 minutes, including a three-minute pause.

Vitaly: An Evening of Wonders plays through Sunday, September 30, 2018, at The Westside Theatre – 407 West 43rd Street, upstairs, New York City. For tickets, call (800) 447-7400, or purchase them online.

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Deb Miller
Deb has written reviews, interviews, and feature articles for Stage Magazine, theartblog, and Inferno, and is a lead writer for Phindie.com and the Philadelphia Arts and Culture Correspondent for Central Voice. She is a judge for Theatre Philadelphia's Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theatre, and previously was a Voter for the awards under the former Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia. Deb holds a PhD in Art History from the University of Delaware, has served as a Commonwealth Speaker for the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, and has taught at the U of D, Bryn Mawr, Rutgers-Camden, Hussian School of Art, and Rowan University.