Magician Jan Rouven wins over audience with ‘Illusions’

Jan Rouven has reminded us of a valuable Las Vegas lesson: Never bet against eccentric German magicians with amusing accents and weird jackets.

When Rouven came to town last year, he was among a pack of magicians fighting their way to the middle.

The top of the magic heap is clearly defined as David Copperfield, Criss Angel or Penn & Teller. But Lance Burton’s retirement in 2010 left the value-conscious, family-friendly, cover-the-basics magic market up for grabs.

Since Rouven opened “Illusions” at the Clarion in July of last year, he made a small jump to the Riviera (at least it’s on the Strip – or what used to be considered the Strip) and outlasted veterans Rick Thomas, Dirk Arthur and Steve Wyrick.

His 7 p.m. show time is well positioned, steering clear of afternoon competitors Michael Turco (the closest in terms of big-box illusions framed by dancers), Nathan Burton and Mac King. And it’s at least $20 less than the big guys at night – if you pay full price for a ticket, and that’s probably rare.

Rouven jams a lot of illusion hardware onto the stage once known for “La Cage,” including giant buzz saw blades, a water tank that aims to drown him and a table that drops swords perilously close to his crotch.

It’s forgivable then, especially in the beat-up old Riviera, that there’s no space or budget left for anything but bare-bones lighting and staging. At least the five dancers are more gymnastic than usual, giving a little extra boost to the filler required to cover new illusions being set up backstage.

Despite a room that would better serve King or comic magician Murray, “Illusions” does a credible job of living up to its title. Rouven adds new twists to classics or combines them for a double-whammy.

Magic shows never seem to learn that you can’t keep up with pop culture, so their attempts to be hip always end up like “Zoolander” or an Eastern Europe discotheque. But Rouven’s glittery silver jacket over shredded jeans does seem to capture the dual appeal of his personality.

He’s young, good looking and very Siegfried and Roy. He tells a female audience recruit to pretend they are having “a rendezvous” and a romantic dinner. Then he says, “You don’t look very excited,” getting a laugh for two reasons.

The first is the lilting, German-accented, voice-cracking way he says “excited.” As he notes up front, “Don’t make funny of (the accent).”

It’s hard not to. Rouven often looks and sounds like Dana Carvey imitating Siegfried. But soon you’re on the side of this charmingly vulnerable fellow, who is what the “Saturday Night Live” cartoon used to call “ambiguously gay” in his stage presence.

That’s the second reason the date joke gets a laugh. So does, “Do you applaud for the (water-tank escape) or for the fact that I blow-dried my hair in three and a half minutes?”

Mind you, I speak only of his stage persona; Rouven’s offstage life is his own business. But in terms of audience rapport, the most hip thing Rouven has going for him is the “new gay” vibe you see in TV and movies – the guy your teen daughter runs around with after choir practice, not the “old gay” cutups like Paul Lynde or Charles Nelson Reilly.

The real magic of the “Bed of Death” is not that Rouven escapes the swords, which fall one at a time when a lady from the audience randomly pulls identical red ropes to release them (one, you see, is poised right over his heart).

No, the real magic is the roll of jokes he gets going before the trick and that the lady seems to genuinely worry about him. Enough to give him a peck on the cheek when he survives.

There are various reasons why Wyrick, Thomas and Arthur are currently missing from the Strip. Some of them are likely to return. Still, I’ve never seen anyone want to kiss any of them on the cheek. That’s as good as any way to sum up why Rouven is still around.

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at [email protected] or 702-383-0288.

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