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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows, and various online archives preserve still more vintage productions. Even as things return to normal we continue to review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

The Magic Show
Broadway 1974 and YouTube   February 2024

In the 1970s, before the runs of Broadway musicals were measured in decades, the title of longest run (almost 5 years) was briefly held by what was essentially a magic act, dressed up in a minimal plot and a few songs and dances.

Proving that the key to a magic act is not the tricks but the presentation, it was the fresh personality of young Canadian magician Doug Henning that carried the show.

Coming along just at that point in entertainment history when the classic tuxedoed rabbit-in-hat magicians were beginning to look tired, and just before Penn-And-Teller-style self-referential irony arrived, Henning was a long-haired, colourful-jeans-wearing hippie with the irresistible grin of one high on life and on the delight of having his tricks all seem magical to him.

Around Henning playwright Bob Randall constructed a minimal plot while composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz provided songs (all for other characters since Henning didn't sing).

The script has young magician Doug audition for a night club owner who is coincidentally firing his drunken old-style magician. Doug impresses him and a Broadway producer who happens to see his act and hires him for the very show we're watching now.

Along the way Doug's pretty assistant, who's in love with him, finally gets him to notice her, while the fired older magician's attempts to sabotage Doug's act all fail.

Stephen Schwartz's songs were never more than serviceable, and in fact several were dropped from this video recording. Nor were you likely to notice anyone else in the original cast, only one of whom –Anita Morris – is carried over along with Henning for this video.

Morris plays a glamorous showgirl briefly considered as a replacement for Doug's lovelorn assistant, only to be sawed in half and sent offstage for most of the show until she's brought back and put back together in time for the finale.

Didi Cohn (Grease) plays that girl with a sweet gamin quality that nicely matches Henning's puppy-dog persona.

And the tricks. There is a very charming little dancing-handkerchiefs illusion at the start and a vanishing elephant near the end.

But most of Henning's tricks are variants on the pattern of him or his assistant being put in a box of some sort Over Here and instantly appearing in another box or behind a curtain Over There.

They are in fact not particularly original, and weren't in 1974, but so delighted does Henning seem showing them off and so delighted when they work, that they seem fresh and truly magical.

This wholly professional recording was made before a live theatre audience in 1980 for Canadian television and somehow found its way into YouTube's vaults.

Only about 100 minutes long, it does not outstay its welcome, nor do the weaker (i.e. non-Doug) parts distract too much.

What delighted paying Broadway audiences a half-century ago the fun of watching a personable guy having fun tricking us – is all there for free today.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of The Magic Show (1974) - 2024
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