If you're taking a trip to Vegas for the sights and shows, what is that one thing that you absolutely cannot miss?
Obviously, it's Meow Wolf's Omega Mart at Area 15. It should be at the top of everyone's list. But that's not what you came here for.
I recently took a trip to Vegas with a friend specifically to see the magic shows. As many magic shows as we could reasonably fit into a week and our budget. And within this article, I will review and rate those shows. But first some disclaimers.
I did my utmost to see the shows that are considered the best of the best as of 2023, which means that they are all very highly rated. You won't see me scoring one of them less than 7/10. But for reference, 1/10 would be your uncle that wants to show you a card trick even though you told him five times not to interrupt your Zoom call for work. 4/10 would be a pretty good birthday party clown. This is a wide scale. Also, yes, I'm a magician myself, but I'm not judging them on the basis of "what would win a FISM competition"--in fact, I had my non-magician friend rate them as well, and I'm largely basing these ratings on his opinions.
Due to time and budget constraints, we didn't make it to the "giant stage illusion" shows. David Copperfield's show at the MGM Grand is the most expensive magic show in town, and you won't find a discount. I've seen him perform live before and am sure the show is incredible. Judging by the advertising, it involves a dinosaur! Criss Angel's show at Planet Hollywood is well-reviewed elsewhere and somewhat more affordable, but it didn't make the cut based on the reviews of my peers. I can't tell you anything about either of these shows. There are a lot of smaller magic shows all across the city, and I surely didn't have enough time to stand on the street and watch every magical busker. There may be a lot of hidden gems that deserved a place on this list. My apologies if I missed something truly great.
Finally, there may be some spoilers as to the effects actually performed in these shows. Rest assured that I will leave out enough detail that knowing what I tell you will not ruin the show for you.
With that out of the way, here are the 6 shows we watched:
Frederic DaSilva: Paranormal Mindreading Show
Location: Magic Attic at the Horseshoe
Price: around $50 and up (though steep discounts are often available)
Frederic DaSilva (henceforth abbreviated to Freddie D), despite the name of his show, does not do one thing to promote the idea that mindreading or the paranormal are real. In fact, he goes out of the way to label himself a magician. He talks about the magic tricks he did as a child and the magic competitions he entered and even inserts a short card trick in the middle of the act, almost like an intermission. So, if you're a big fan of the occult or the Uri Geller approach to magic, you're barking up the wrong tree by going to this show.
What you will see is a small, intimate, and intensely personal show that seems a little bit too slick for its scale. Freddie D does a great job of getting the audience involved in myriad ways. He'll pluck names out of people's minds, cause watches to be set to selected times, and even sprinkle in a bit of hypnosis, or something that's intended to look like it. If you're a magician, you can expect some book tests, some billet work, a drawing duplication, PK touches, an award-winning confabulation, and even a completely sincere performance of the invisible deck. There's a lot of heart in this show, but I would contend that it feels a bit disordered and perhaps struggles at times to perfectly strike a mood or get across the power of the effects he presents--and there are a lot of effects. Some aspects of the presentation or setting seem to undermine other parts of it, like the show can't quite decide exactly what it wants to be. And, more than anything, what it lacks is a spectacle.
I didn't see any children in the room despite the fact that it is an afternoon show, and I suspect that kids under 10 might find it confusing or just boring. I wouldn't suggest it as a family outing even though there's nothing obscene to be found in it.
The ending, though, I will say is very nice. He finally concludes with an excellent message and a display of skill that will make you think--but it might not make you feel anything in particular. And it is quite affordable!
Mat Franco: Magic Reinvented Nightly
Location: Mat Franco Theater at The Linq
Price: around $50 and up
Genre: Mix of parlour and closeup
Mat really has a boatload of charisma. He, more than anyone on this list (except Blaine, who he equals), feels completely sincere at all times and has a way of connecting with audience members. He seems like the type of guy who could make anyone his friend in an instant. He's not the only one on this list who excels at audience interaction, but he's the only one to do so without seeming to keep up any emotional distance—at least that's how it felt to me. On the other hand, when he moves away from that core strength by performing routines that don't involve as much interaction with the audience, the show kind of falls down.
What will you see at this show? And what makes it so "magic reinvented?" Well, ironically enough, most of what you'll see is just modern takes on classic magic effects. He starts the show with the classic borrowed bill switch. But when the spectator finds it later in a sealed bag of ramen that they personally selected, it feels like just enough of a twist to keep it fresh. And he does a very traditional coins across routine as well as the ever popular instant teleportation into the audience, but the fact that the former sort of provides cover (in a very literal sense) for the latter is another refreshing twist. He does a set of classic card tricks with audience members on stage around a poker table with his face on it. He does some classic card manipulation accompanied by a story of his childhood and family (as seems to be so popular among the magicians we saw). He does a mostly forgettable trick with balloons that nonetheless feels quite original. He does a prediction with a set of life-size doors and then goes right into a fairly classic presentation of the multiplying wine bottles.
Then things get real. He does spectator's phone to impossible location, and the impossible location it ends up in is the most impossible location of any of the impossible locations we saw this week. By itself, this trick is enough to boost his rating by half a point. And then his final trick, the card cannon, really pushes it over the top. Every single thing that happened involving an audience member throughout the whole show is brought back and integrated into this final routine, and it finally makes sense why the show is called what it is. In effect, it's a very simple routine, but the fact that you know it was completely personalized and customized for this occasion and this audience and can never be performed the same way again really brings the whole thing to a nice solid landing. Just the fact that he manages to remember the name of more than half a dozen audience members for up to an hour (or makes it seem like he does at least) really puts across the central point I was trying to make at the top of this review.
I want to say that the stage and the use of technology doesn't play to Franco's strengths, but I can't say that it feels too slick for him. Putting up video clips of himself as a child or his journey through the America's Got Talent competition didn't actually detract from his stage presence. He was the one narrating after all. Honestly, the only reason he doesn't get a higher score in the end is that the acts that scored better just have a little bit more of that little something extra and don't spend quite as much time on non-magical side stories. But if you have time and you happen to be staying in or near the Linq, I'd say this show is definitely not to be missed.
Shin Lim & Colin Cloud: Limitless
Location: The Mirage Theater
Price: $50 and up
Genre: Close-up and mentalism
I think it must be said right up front that, while Lim is an absolute god when it comes to close-up sleight of hand magic, and while his sense of style and routining is precise, dramatic, profound, and well-thought-out, I don't really think it would be quite as good if it were a solo act. Colin Cloud, as a personable and amiable mentalist and as the narrator of Lim's biography (the narrative around which the show is woven), adds something tangible that can't be found in Lim's performances.
From Cloud, you'll get only a few tricks. One involving numbers and cell phone calculators. A book test. Something involving audience members' secrets, hypnosis, the contents of a receipt. He does a little bit of close-up magic too—but I can't talk about that without spoiling the surprise ending of the show. However, most of what he does is talk over some of Lim's performances and the transitions between them. He's the voice of the show's continuity, tying everything together, except for the parts he interrupts. On the other hand, he hardly says anything about his own story. He's explicitly there as Lim's wingman. If I were going to criticize his part, I'd say that sometimes the structure of his routines support that narrative of the show while undermining their own impact. They seem to be about one thing and are revealed to be something entirely different just moments later.
From Lim, you can expect a camera burning his hands as he performs the same routines that let him fool Penn & Teller twice and win America's Got Talent twice. You can expect smoke and lights, perfectly choreographed movements, surprising visuals, and that iconic anime protagonist hair. It's all juicy visual spectacle, but it's almost all on the smallest scale. If you've ever seen him perform, you know exactly what you're getting. It's deadly serious, dramatic, extremely difficult, and very little of what those in the biz might call "workers." It's certainly not for everyone. It's not geared toward families for instance. It's perhaps a bit too cerebral at times for those who want to get a little bit lost in their cups and still have a fun time. His aesthetic is incredibly over-the-top and slick, like watching a TV special live. On the other hand, he does get the entire audience involved in a card trick that happens in their hands at one point, and I think this is the point where the audience collectively had the most fun.
As skillful and well-constructed as this entire show is, and in spite of the personal touch of it being the story of Lim overcoming multiple obstacles to achieve what he has, it somehow feels less emotional and sincere than some of the other shows on this list. Lim comes down firmly on the side of Gary Kurtz's "hallucinogenic approach" to magic: "I am much more concerned about them remembering me, the performer, than remember[ing] the tricks." It's just a continuous sequence of dream-like beauty (and intentionally so: the first big card spectacle he does is his FISM-winning Dream Act, set to the main theme from Inception) with so many moments of magic, you can't possibly remember what happened when you describe it later. But I think this very fact is what will end up hurting my rating in the end: an act with a few incredible things is easier to talk about and remember later than something like this. When it comes to winning talent shows, it helps to be a fox, but when it comes to marketing a show, you're probably better off being the hedgehog.
Go watch a few of Lim's performances on YouTube and decide based on that whether this is a show you'd like to see because that's exactly what you'll get here. If you mainly want to laugh, skip it. If you want grand illusions, skip it. If you want to take pictures of fun moments throughout the act, that's not allowed here. If you want the world's best live close-up act, you cannot miss it.
Mac King Comedy Magic Show
Location: Thunderland Showroom at Excalibur
Price: $25 and up (when using the easy to obtain half-off discounts)
Genre: Stage/parlour clowning, illusions
I have no picture of King's stage because I arrived late to the front row and then I forgot before I left, but this photo he himself posted on his facebook page pretty much captures it:
Mac King, dubbed the "King of the afternoon" is absolutely the best value you can get for your money on the Las Vegas strip. Mac's been in this business forever, and has focused and fine-tuned his experience into a perfectly-constructed show that is witty and whip-smart from beginning to end. Given the price, there is no excuse for missing this.
Mac's show is absolutely the least slick show on this list. Which is to say it is perfectly honed to support his carefully-honed clown persona. Despite the fact that he has eschewed the seemingly obligatory "here's my full history as a magician" everyone else seems to do and, indeed, that he never once slips from maintaining his stage persona, the show still manages to come across as completely sincere. From the oversize plaid suit to the silly gags to the constantly appearing Fig Newtons, King has constructed the equivalent of a proper stand-up comedy routine. More than almost any magician out there, he's not doing tricks—he's doing bits. All the hallmarks are there: rules of three; premises, set-ups, and punchlines; call-backs; character shticks; and a heck of a lot of ribbing the audience.
He also just seems like a super-friendly and nice guy. Like the class clown that grew into your favorite uncle. He called me up on stage (quite without asking whether I should) and then dismissed me for being a magician, but he was so kind about it.
But don't let my praise of his set, his attitude, and his comedy chops give you the impression you won't see some incredible magic. Is it a lot of stock and classical stuff? Sure. He kicks it off with a take on the Professor's Nightmare/Fiber Optics. He's got a pretty standard but outrageously funny cards across. He's producing things from under silks and producing a signed bill from an impossible place. But look—I feel like putting it this way makes it seem like his magic is not creative, when in fact it's some of the most original material you can see on the strip. Every single one of the things I mentioned above (except perhaps the cards across) contains some elements you won't see any other magicians doing. He's the only guy you'll see setting up a tent on stage and asking a child to go inside. He's the only one you'll see unzipping his pants to pull things out of. He's the only one you'll see with a telephone in his shoe. He's the only one you'll see doing a chop cup routine with a guinea pig. He's the only one you'll see appearing to fling a goldfish into the audience and find it under a child's chair.
I keep mentioning children, don't I? I'd say this is also the show that will most appeal to young children. It will confuse them, make them laugh, perhaps even scare them. And it's right in the middle of the afternoon while they're still awake. If you've got kids, this show should be the top of your list.
As a magician, I loved this whole act and learned so much from it. There are so many little clever subtleties a lay audience wouldn't see. He uses his skill, but hides it for the sake of the act and the character. In the end, though, it's not getting the highest rating on this list just because each individual piece and part of this act I saw done better—if only slightly—by some of the others here. Piff's gags are just a little bit stronger. Lim's and Franco's sleight of hand are just a little bit stronger (as are their teleportations into the audience but shhhh spoilers). Blaine's big spectacles are just a little bit more impressive. But I can say this for sure: none of their scripting was better. None of their interactions with children were better. King knows exactly what he wants his show to be, and he has it down to a tee.
David Blaine: In Spades
Location: Resorts World Theatre
Price: $70 and up
Genre: Bizarre, stunts, and close-up
David Blaine is performing select weekends at Resorts World to a nearly full house, and he's got the most expensive show on this list. It's not David Copperfield expensive, but it's getting there. But I'm going to tell you straight-up: he earns every single penny of it every single night he goes on. This show is like nothing else you'll see anywhere, and it's guaranteed to absolutely blow you away.
What exactly is Blaine doing differently than everyone else?
First, his show is at least half not magic tricks in the traditional sense. He just does something. You see what he's doing; you know what he's doing; there are no secrets, only skill. It's like a circus performance in a way. For example, he has someone (a celebrity, probably) shove an ice pick through his bicep. There's no way to do it except for an ice pick actually puncturing his arm. He drinks a couple of gallons of water in the space of a minute. You watch the water go down his throat and then watch it come back up again. You don't see him jump from the top of the house onto a pile of boxes—that stunt has been removed from the act for being too dangerous, I suppose. If there is any trickery involved in these stunts, it must be incredibly subtle because I am somewhat hard to fool when it comes to magic tricks.
Secondly, he's going for a completely different aura. Sure, he's got the lights and video screens that so many of these Vegas magicians are using, but his act doesn't start with spooky, dramatic music. It's just popular classic rock songs that everyone loves, more like what you might hear at a comedy magic show. How does he start the show? He just walks onto the stage without any fanfare. At no point does he go out of his way to drum up additional hype or audience applause. He's happy to perform in complete silence. And it's always awe-filled stunned silence too.
Thirdly, he's got a very casual, workmanlike affect. "Here, I'm just going to do the thing. Make of it what you will. I'm not going to overact or get excited, yell, banter, joke, or otherwise get too out of sorts." It seems like he just wants people to sit in their thoughts, or react as they genuinely would if he walked up to them on the street. And that makes sense for him—that was his great innovation with David Blaine Street Magic after all.
As far as whether you will be wowed, impressed, entertained, etc., I can honestly tell you this: this was the only show where my friend suddenly shouted "What the f***, David??!!??!?" in surprise and awe. Relatedly, it's the only show that sends every guest home with a genuinely nice deck of cards.
What about criticism? There are a couple of things. This can be a very uncomfortable show to watch. You will see some very dangerous and genuinely painful things. By stepping into the theater, you are signing off on watching some suffering. I watched several people walk out of the house at some of the most uncomfortable moments. Perhaps it is not the best choice to bring younger children to. Also, the show is not at snappy. It moves at a gentle, plodding pace. Sometimes, Blaine leaves the stage to recover from whatever feat while the audience is left to watch a video on the big screen. Compared to every other show, this one spends the smallest proportion of time on the actual live performance. And it's the one where you most wish Blaine were still there doing another incredible thing at every single moment. But that's probably just another compliment in disguise.
Piff The Magic Dragon: The Vegas Show
Location: Flamingo Showroom
Price: $42 and up
Genre: Stage/parlour clowning, gags
"How do you top a guy in a dragon suit?" asks some commentator quoted in Piff's marketing video, and this is a question my friend and I genuinely debated all week long since we had saved the best for last. My friend thinks the answer is that the suit has a flap under the tail, but I was not so eager to transfer the mystery to the dull catalogue of commonplace things.
Jokes aside, Piff's show is really something special. To begin with, the Flamingo Showroom is the best possible place to see a Vegas show. It's your classic 20th Century lounge-style theater with booths and tables. You can just picture in your mind the mob bosses smoking cigars at a corner table. If you want a drink and don't want to wait for a server, you can head to a bar wedged into a back room where they will make you an incredibly strong Gin Collins for 15 bucks, and I think you should absolutely do that. As funny as this show is, a little bit of liquor can only heighten your experience. Unless you've brought your kids maybe. And you can and should absolutely bring your kids too.
But Piff doesn't want you to absorb that classic Vegas atmosphere for too long. Long before the show actually starts, he's showing short comedy parody films on the big screens beside the stage. The crowd is already as hyped as they can come before Piff walks on in his brand new gem-bedecked dragon suit shouting "Do you want to see a magic trick?" in his not particularly high class Southern English accent, perhaps, as in our case, already gruff from having unexplainedly lost his voice. And the jokes and silly gags come just as quickly.
As much as I praised Franco's and King's audience interaction above, Piff does just as well, except that his sarcastic persona requires him to lean in hard on making fun of participants in his follies. In fact, that's the sort of interaction that every single one of his routines is built on. Unlike Mac King's carefully structured comedy routine, Piff is always angling for a madcap mad hatteresque caper in which almost nothing seems planned in retrospect even when you can tell that every bit of it is. I guess what I'm trying to say is that, while King's comedy is structured around clear bits and callbacks, Piff's is mostly structured around partly improvised audience interactions. The biggest effect in the show, the one on which it ends, starts right at the beginning. A couple is picked on, interrogated, called on again, called out, made fun of, and by the end, all these jokes are called back to in a final confabulation reveal. The result is entirely responsive to the people who showed up that night in a way that no one else on this list besides Franco can claim.
As to the magical effects that Piff performs, they tend to be relatively simple things predicated on overly elaborate set-ups and reveals. If the magical outcome seems like almost an afterthought at times, it's because Piff relentlessly puts over-the-top and absurd comedy ahead of the sort of awe and amazement that someone like Blaine is trying to inspire. The takeaway is always something along the lines of "Wow, that's cool. How did he do that? Wait, hold on, never mind that, something really funny is about to happen!" Nonetheless, every single effect is still memorable because the visual they make on the stage is so iconic.
While every show on this list requires a number of people working together to put together, only at this show are most of them given an actual character to play and expected to contribute to the comedy. Piff's wife Jade Simone plays a traditionally attired Vegas showgirl who is always way too energetic and excited for the circumstances, the perfect foil for Piff's deadpan sarcastic ribbing. The cameraman who makes sure the audience can clearly see the interactions on stage is dressed as a shy squire who runs away when asked a serious question, a different sort of foil. And then, of course, there's Mr. Piffles, Piff's lethargic and unflappable chihuahua, who gets credited with the working of multiple tricks despite never doing much more than eating chicken and being puppeted by Piff. Given that Piff is flying out to do tour shows every other week on top of his residency, this must be the hardest working crew in Vegas. I don't blame him for canceling the show scheduled on his birthday.
I don't really think I can get across in words exactly what the magic and silliness of this show is like. I could easily get it across in pictures, but I don't want to spoil anything. So let me get it across this way: I honestly can't come up with a single legitimate criticism of this show. It's exactly what it should be. I would change nothing. And I can't think of anyone it wouldn't appeal to.
Just one more thing: After the show, Piff and the gang are available outside the house for a meet and greet with photos, which means an opportunity to ask Piff questions or pet Mr. Piffles. Which meant I could finally get an answer to that question that plagued my friend and I all week. How do you top a guy in a dragon suit? According to the man himself, in the quietest, gentlest voice you can imagine: "Shoot him in the face!" Exactly what you'd expect from a guy who needs a dragon suit to be socially acceptable.