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Chicago by John Olson

The Houdini Box
Chicago Children's Theatre

Also see John's reviews of Time Stands Still and Gypsy

Fans of the current Oscar-nominated film Hugo will see similarities between that story and The Houdini Box, a world premiere musical with book and lyrics by Hannah Kohl, based on a short novel by Brian Selznick, creator of the illustrated novel that was Hugo's source. In Hugo, based on Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret, an orphaned Parisian boy becomes involved with a reclusive Georges Méliès, arguably the inventor of the dramatic motion picture. The Houdini Box's hero, Victor, is a young boy living in New York during the 1920s who is a budding magician and who worships Houdini. Or at least he worships what he has heard of him, never having seen the man perform. As the musical opens, Victor, being short of the admission price, misses out on a chance to see Houdini perform at a nearby theater. He eventually meets Houdini, quite coincidentally, and the experience is transforming for him, but not in the ways he expects.

Houdini Box
Alex Weisman, Sara Sevigny and Derek Hasenstab

The musical, like the novel, is short, but it is a perfect length for the little story it tells. As Victor, the adult but cherubic Alex Weisman is onstage for nearly the full running time of 50 minutes and The Houdini Box is a great showcase for this young Chicago actor with an abundance of stage presence and charisma. His Victor is a dreamer and a performer—constantly "on stage" for his imagined audience. He believes in magic—so much so that he believes he'll be able to replicate Houdini's tricks through sheer force of will. Director Blair Thomas has incorporated generous use of puppets of his own design, and created scenes in which the characters are sometimes seen as puppets and sometimes as live actors, with action moving seamlessly between the two. Thomas designed the clever sets as well, using backdrops to establish locales including a theater, Victor's house, and the old Penn Station—within a vaudeville-styled proscenium arch.

Weisman is well supported by Sara Sevigny as Victor's exasperated mother and the versatile Derek Hasenstab in multiple roles as a barker, Victor's maiden aunt and Houdini. The score, with music by Mark Messing and Kohl's lyrics, is not of the traditional showtune variety, but evokes styles of the 1920s and European folk music.

Victor's belief in magic is meant to refer to all types of imagination. The Houdini Box, combining the imagination of such skilled performers as Weisman, Hasenstab and Sevigny as well as the visual artistry of master puppeteer Thomas, and magic tricks designed by Brett Schneider, is a fine introduction to the magic of theater for any of the kids and adults in this audience.

The Houdini Box will play the Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport Ave., Chicago through March 4, 2012, and will transfer to the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts for a run from March 14-25, 2012. For tickets and information, visit www.chicagochildrenstheatre.org or call the Mercury Theater Box Office at 773-325-1700; the North Shore Center box office at 847-673-6300.


Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson



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