It’s been said (I honestly don’t know by whom, but I believe it) that there is no more appreciative audience on earth than the ones being entertained by good magicians. Having attended a late morning performance of three scheduled performances of The Illusionists Turn of The Century review on Saturday, November 14, at the Durham Performing Arts Center, in Durham, NC, I bear witness to this.
They’ve been doing these sorts of shows for over a hundred years. It’s the same kind of show Harry Houdini and his wife, Bess used to do around the turn of the 19th century. Only now, in the 21st century, the show has multiple performers, a lot of 21st century lighting techniques and a rock n’ roll band. None of which altered, in the slightest, the crazy, titillating allure of a good illusionist, and one right after the other, these Illusionists delivered.
Though not specifically billed as such, they were well aware that this morning matinee had a family audience. This didn’t stop the Illusionist known as The Anti-Conjuror (Dan Sperry) during the first segment of his overall performance. He had an audience member ascertain the presence of double-edged razor blades in an apple, ‘ate’ those blades and then drew them out of his mouth, attached to a string. The Anti-Conjuror has adopted a pretty powerful Goth persona for this act. Thin, with long, stringy black hair that invariably found its way in front of his dark eyes. Piercings, tattoos, and a black outfit that showed off a few muscles. He would return to the stage, later in the show, to do a magic routine with doves that was remarkably entertaining, full of those unavoidable smiles on the faces of people, young and old, saying “How’d he do that??!!”
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Whether it’s “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music or “Color and Light” from Sunday in the Park with George or “Losing My Mind” from Follies, nailing lyricist-composer Stephen Sondheim’s songs is notoriously difficult. This isn’t just because his work is unfathomably ambitious, its chords seemingly in conflict with its melodies, its influence all-over-the-the-musical map; it’s because he writes about adults who are broken and broken down. Critic Richard Corliss once said that Sondheim makes “popular art for grownups with sutured hearts.”
There are best sondheim songs, however, that, if done right, can prove your mettle on any stage. It’s called “Getting Married Today” from the 1970 show Company—though it’s better known as (Not) Getting Married Today, since that is the refrain of the terrified young bride-to-be who sings it, Amy. It’s the ultimate audition test, and widely considered to be one of the hardest songs you could sing in musical theater. (Until “Guns and Ships” came along in Hamilton, it was probably the fastest song, as well.) The person who first nailed it on Broadway was Beth Howland, an actress who became better known as another nervous character, the clumsy waitress Vera, on the television show Alice. Howland died on December 31, 2015 in Santa Monica but her husband, actor Charles Kimbrough, didn’t announce it until last week.
In this song, she rattles off the litany of reasons she has no business getting married today, scarcely pausing to take a breath. For a kid on the precipice of adulthood, it taps into so many fears about the next step, about being tied down too early, about not knowing what comes tomorrow.