British playwright George Bernard Shaw once remarked that fabled escape artist Harry Houdini was, along with the personages of Jesus Christ and Sherlock Holmes, one of the three most famous people in the world. Although today's culture of instant celebrity has considerably altered Houdini's standing among the greatest entertainers of all time, the enigmatic performer remains one of the most fascinating, and largely misunderstood, personalities in the history of show business. In fact, most people who've heard of Houdini don't realize that his premature death was the result of a ruptured appendix and not, as Hollywood has repeatedly told the tale, a failed underwater escape attempt.
And it's another exaggerated aspect of the venerated magician's life--namely, his desire to expose the fraudulent nature of seance-happy spirit mediums--that serves as the inspiration for Hocus Pocus: Houdini's Final Act, a world-premiere musical written by University of Colorado professors Paul M. Levitt and Robert R. Fink. Now being presented at the Imig Music Building on the CU-Boulder campus, the two-and-a-half-hour show is, as befits many musicals in their infant stages, a hit-and-miss concoction of the intriguing and the mundane. Nonetheless, on the strength of some lovely singing voices, a few hymn-like tunes and the comic interplay of vibrant though sketchy characters, Levitt and Fink's sprawling epic occasionally possesses an uncanny power to amuse.
For example, there's the show's first song, the appropriately titled "Seance Hymn," in which a group of superstitious characters from the Twenties gather around a table to witness the peculiar talents of spirit medium Mina Crandon (Catherine Clarke), who croons, "The spirits are near, we must believe." A few minutes later we're introduced to Harry Houdini (Daniel Fosha) and his wife, Bess (Katherine Soscia), who start up a delightful telephonic duet titled "When Asleep It's of You I Dream." And there's the common-man figure of Houdini's Scottish assistant, James Collins (James Gale, who also directs the show), who periodically steps forward to deliver tinny limericks between the vaudeville-style scenes. Combined with the yeoman efforts of a seven-piece pit band and the antics of an all-student supporting cast, a few scenes prove to be engaging.
Most of the time, though, the performers' well-sung efforts are eclipsed by the show's drawn-out, disjointed plot. It isn't until well into Act Two, for instance, that we briefly learn of Houdini's difficulty in reconciling his all-too-real, private feelings of grief for his deceased mother with the phony, well-publicized claims of the spiritualists. But rather than build his drama outward from that theme, playwright Levitt instead meanders in several other directions. As a result, it's difficult for theatergoers to remain focused on one character's emotional odyssey in the midst of the hodgepodge show's lengthy, underdeveloped segments. Still, given Gale's inventive direction, Fink's evocative musical score and the performers' enthusiasm for the project, it may only be a matter of time (and extensive rewrites) before this offbeat look at the events surrounding Houdini's last days materializes into something more substantial.
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Hocus Pocus: Houdini's Final Act, presented by the University of Colorado Lyric Theatre Program through November 8 at the Imig Music Building, CU-Boulder campus, 303-492-8008.