At age 10, Kevin James knew what he aspired to be.
“A magician came to our school and did a show, and I instantly knew that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” says the magician known as “The Inventor” in the Broadway magic show, “The Illusionists.”
“That never changed. In college, I had friends who were 20 years and old and still didn’t know what they wanted to do. I did,” James recalls.
Coming to Gammage from Tuesday, January 17, to Sunday, January 22, “The Illusionists” features seven major magicians, each with a different specialty and persona. The cast could be dubbed “The Avengers” of magic, with James called “The Inventor.”
“The director said, ‘Imagine you’re a magic superhero. What would your superpower be?’ And because I create all my own illusions, ‘The Inventor’ came to mind.”
James was hooked on magic at a young age, not because of the tricks involved, but because of the emotions of wonder and surprise that surround a magic show.
“That’s the biggest and best-kept secret in magic: That the secrets don’t really matter so much as the story and emotion and having some connection with the audience, resonating with them,” James says.
James grew up in Jonesville, Michigan, a small town that lacked a magic shop. Fortunately, a nearby town was home to a yearly magic festival, and it was there that he learned the basics of his future trade.
James made lifelong friends at the festival, including Jeff Hobson, who is also in “The Illusionists.”
Creating a magic act is not that different from creating a song or a story.
“I have notebooks full of notions. Sometimes a wonderful piece of music moves you, or a plot line. And then you start looking for an effect to go with it,” he says.
Matching the effect to the inspiration can take months—even years.
“You write it down even if you don’t have a way to do it right then. You let it sizzle in your brain, and then one day, you see how it might work. It’s sort of like a puzzle, where you work it from the end to the start. Along the way, you’re careful to bring out the pluses and hide the minuses.”
One of James’ most popular illusions is the sawing in half of a man. Some have figured out how the sawing happens, but no one can figure out how he puts the two back together.
“Magicians have to hide their technique,” James says. “A singer who hits a high note is showing off how well she can do that. But a magician has to keep everything looking easy and natural. Otherwise it’s just juggling.”
Magic appeals to millions of people, even though everyone knows it’s just, well…an illusion. Why is that?
“People get caught up in the visuals and the humor and the story. They laugh and enjoy themselves too much to worry about how it all works.”
James’ favorite magician is Penn from Penn and Teller, whose creations, he says, “are absolute brilliance.”
The magician’s biggest frustration so far in which career is sharing his name with a certain comedian. Has he thought of changing his name?
“You know, I’ve been using this name for a long time before the other Kevin James got famous. I think I’m gonna keep it.”
“The Illusionists,” ASU Gammage, 1200 S. Forest Avenue, Tempe, 480.965.3434, asugammage.com, various times Tuesday, January 17, to Sunday, January 22, $20-$125.