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'The Illusionists' brings new kind of magic to Broadway

Andrew Basso in a scene from the Broadway

Andrew Basso in a scene from the Broadway show, "The Illusionists," in New York. Credit: AP / The Illusionists

The first time Italian illusionist Andrew Basso was shackled, turned upside-down and lowered into a tank of water, he had second thoughts.

"In the moment just before the face goes into the water, the last deep breath, I was thinking, 'I'm stupid -- I'm pretty good with card tricks, why I don't keep doing that?'" Basso says, with his light Italian accent.

But Basso, 29, an escapologist by trade, admits he's hooked on the excitement, physical challenge and, yes, the danger of escaping from such a predicament. This was Harry Houdini's signature act a century ago, and Basso performs it without a curtain, in full view of the audience, in "The Illusionists: Witness the Impossible," a jaw-dropping theatrical event that has been touring the country and opens on Broadway at the Marquis Theatre on Thursday, running through Jan. 4.

Seven illusionists star in this spectacle, including Basso, Adam Trent (called "The Futurist," specializing in technology illusions), "The Warrior" Aaron Crow (weapon magic) and "The Anti-Conjuror" Dan Sperry (part magician, part Marilyn Manson).

This is not, as they say, your father's magic act.

Magicians tended to fall into the over-the-top, cape-swirling variety until Criss Angel (aka Christopher Sarantakos of East Meadow) burst on the scene in 2002, spending 24 hours underwater in a case in Times Square. Suddenly, magicians weren't just guys pulling rabbits out of hats, but death-defying stuntmen with rock-star swagger.

A magician made headlines again recently when Mat Franco, with his frat-boy grin and clever, updated-for-the-millennials tricks -- disappearing cellphones; a human deck of cards -- won on "America's Got Talent."

"I like to think I made a connection with the audience," Franco said after his win. "Maybe it was just the year of the magician."

It may be magic's year, but Basso thinks there's more to it than that.

He recalls the first time he saw a street magician, as a kid back in Italy with his mother. "She was always wearing black, like Morticia Addams, a very serious woman -- but this guy got her to laugh so hard," he says. "I remember the amazement in her face -- it was a strong moment for me as a kid. I thought, if I can do that, bring joy, change people, that's what I want to do."

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