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December 21, 2014

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Believe’ it: Criss Angel’s work has markedly improved Luxor show

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Erik Kabik/Retna/ErikKabik.com

Criss Angel at the Boys & Girls Club of Las Vegas on Dec. 21, 2010.

To borrow a phrase, the whole thing has kind of freaked my mind.

How it was that I ushered in the New Year with Criss Angel, I mean. How it was that I turned KatMobile II over to a parking attendant at Angel’s grandiose estate, which he has dubbed Serenity at Sun City Anthem, to ring in 2011 in high style. There are closets in this manse that are larger than some apartments I’ve rented. At Serenity, you are met by a giant pool outfitted with a set of stools sitting underwater next to an open fireplace (or, “fire effect” in this context) overlooking a staggering view of the Las Vegas Valley.

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Criss Angel at the Boys & Girls Club of Las Vegas on Dec. 21, 2010.

Criss Angel's Birthday and 1,000th Believe Show

Criss Angel's birthday and 1,000th Believe performance at the Luxor on Dec. 11, 2010. Launch slideshow »

Criss Angel at Boys and Girls Club

Criss Angel at the Boys & Girls Club of Las Vegas on Dec. 21, 2010.

Launch slideshow »

Criss Angel's Serenity

Criss Angel's mountaintop mansion Serenity. Launch slideshow »

The glass-paneled wall separating the living area to the pool opens fully for indoor-outdoor recreating. Nailed to the walls of Serenity are life-size crucifixes (I joked that it shows the Passion of the Criss) and the martini- and olive-inspired artwork by the inherently whimsical artist Michael Godard.

Oh, and you are met by Godard, too. The artist himself. At least you are on New Year’s Eve. Very engaging guy.

It’s a cool experience to be invited to such an event, no question, and Angel played gracious host to the dozens of well-wishers on New Year’s Eve. Among them were many of his friends and colleagues from the Las Vegas entertainment field: the dependably dangerous Amazing Johnathan; a fit (and retired, he says) Lance Burton; fellow Luxor headliner Carrot Top; and “The Mentalist” Gerry McCambridge.

The terrific cast and production staff of “Believe” were on hand, too, and Angel toasted them about 30 minutes before 2010 ebbed away, thanking them for their hard work and dedication in helping push “Believe” to its 1,000th performance last month.

And while making my way around this scene, I could not help but think of David Byrne’s line from “Once in a Lifetime” -- “Well, how did I get here?”

I would not have thought this sort of party/summit with Angel would have been likely even 6 months ago. As anyone who reads this column regularly (and God help you if you do), I have not been a fan of Angel’s show, or of Angel himself, since he unveiled “Believe” at Luxor in October 2008. I saw the show a month after it opened, and I didn’t like it, recognizing it as a clumsy, disjointed attempt to merge Cirque du Soleil and “Mindfreak” on a Las Vegas stage.

Whenever I’d see an entertainer perform some sort of routine trick onstage -- like a juggler working with a ping-pong ball, an orange and a bowling pin -- I’d say, “This is more magic than you will see in all of ‘Believe.’ ” As a show host, I found Angel to be pretentious, to the max, and felt “Believe” had become Cirque’s Achilles’ heel.

This attitude went on for quite a while, and it seemed there would be no other way to write about Angel than to knock him and his show. But during this time, Angel was doing what a true professional does -- working on his craft.

The changes he has made in “Believe” are pronounced and effective. Absent now is the storyline centering on rabbits, and how they have been sacrificed unfairly in the name of entertainment. Banished is the creepy funeral scene. Also gone is the confusing wedding segment, which should have been titled “Wha-A?” In fact, there is no story thread at all, as Angel pushes out about 40 illusions in rapid succession (he disappears and reappears about a dozen times in the upgraded “Believe”).

For better or worse, Cirque’s influence is largely absent. The great entertainment company is still on the marquee, but the show today is more centered on Angel than when it opened. He reaches back into the tricks of his youth, such illusions as pulling a string of razorblades from his mouth (a trick that went awry years ago during a birthday party performance for Brooke Shields and sent a bloodied Angel to the hospital). He is suspended upside down over the audience in a straitjacket and works his way out in 10 seconds.

Angel, too, has become a better navigator of the show, eliciting the support of the comic usher character Maestro to add badly needed brevity to the banter onstage. That move alone has helped smooth out the show, as Maestro brings a classic, self-mocking, John Belushi-type attitude to “Believe.”

Angel has essentially taken over and made “Believe” a show about magic, and as such it is far better than it was when it opened. A cynic would say, “That’s damning with faint praise,” but Angel has gone back to the work shed and rebuilt a show many observers thought would have been long dead by now. Good for him.

And when it came time to mend fences in the field, Angel made the move, asking if I’d like to see the improved version of the show. I was surprised, to put it mildly. As I told him, I would not have invited me back to see his show or shared a burger or anything else after some of the stuff I’d written about him. But I did go back to “Believe” in November, and I liked it way better than the show I saw in November 2008.

When I met with Angel after the show, he said only that he wanted a clean slate. It’s obvious he wants to change the trajectory of how he is treated in local media, and you can’t fault that. He’s clearly worked hard to make “Believe” a show that can sustain what are, reportedly, strong audience counts for the long term.

I respect all of that, honestly. It’s been a raucous ride with Mr. Angel, but as the fireworks blasted over The Strip in far-away Las Vegas, I wished him and his great staff nothing but good fortune in the New Year.

Life is too short to feel otherwise.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.

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