Saturday, April 28, 2012

Houdini Lives Again in Miami

Harry Houdini Makes a Limited Appearance in Miami By Skip Sheffield “Death and Harry Houdini” makes the round-trip from Boca Raton to Miami entirely worthwhile, because through May 20, the only place you can see this amazing show is the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. “Houdini” is a play with music, magic, comedy and a great sense of history, written and directed by Nathan Allen of the House Theatre of Chicago. The playwright-director himself introduced “Houdini,” which is a collaborative effort developed over the past ten years. It is a technically complex show, yet the cast and crew in Miami made it look easy; even Houdini’s most famous and dangerous trick, the escape from the “Water Torture Cell” locked under water, upside down. Harry Houdini (1874-1926) was the greatest escape artist of all time, and during the earliest part of the 20th century, the highest-paid performer in vaudeville. There was a lot more to Houdini the man, which the audience learns in the exposition of the play. Houdini, played by award-winning magician Dennis Watkins, was born Erik Weisz in Budapest, Hungary, the son of a rabbi. The family emigrated to America; first to Wisconsin and later to New York City. Houdini began as a brothers act with younger brother Theodore (Shawn Pfautsch). When a showgirl named Bess (Carolyn Defrin) danced into his life, she became his onstage partner and assistant. There was a great love between Harry and Bess, but there was a third part to a triangle: Harry’s mother Cecilia (Marika Mashburn), whom he adored. In fact you could call Houdini a mama’s boy. Mashburn plays the scowling matriarch to great comic effect. Each of the supporting cast serves as a musician and onstage assistant on the illusions that are performed as part of the show. They include a Ringmaster, played by Johnny Arena, a Death figure who doubles as a rival magician (Kevin Stangler) and two female ensemble members (Abu Ansari and Trista Smith). Houdini was not only one of the greatest magicians who ever lived; he also debunked fraudulent magicians and so-called spiritualists. Yet Houdini was convinced there is an “other side” in which it could be possible to communicate with the dead. A subtheme of the play is the defeat of the inevitability of death. Houdini inevitably did die at the young age of 52 in 1926, but America and the world are richer for his artistry and imagination. My brother Richard and I have a special fondness for Houdini, as our paternal grandfather used to tell us how he saw Houdini perform live when he was a young man, executing his famed escape from chains underwater in the Hudson River. You don’t have to be that kind of special fan, but “Houdini” is wonderful entertainment for anyone who enjoys amazement and surprise. Tickets start at $40. Call 305-949-6722 or go to

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