NEW YORK — David Copperfield, probably the world's most popular magician, is also a media-mixer who keeps his career hopping by making it as hard to pin down as the dancing Kleenex that stars in one of his best tricks.
On one hand, he's a TV celebrity with 16 specials to his credit. On the other, his new "Dreams & Nightmares" is a stage production in Broadway's intimate Martin Beck Theater, where his sleight-of-hand occurs right under the audience's collective nose.
Copperfield is hard to characterize in other ways, too. While he's obviously a hard-working professional who has devoted his life to the illusionary arts, his onstage persona combines the looks of a soap-opera hero with the manner of a nightclub comedian, tossing off one-liners and striking glamorous poses with the diaphanously clad women who assist him.
As for the substance of his act, he built his fame with giant-sized illusions like making an airplane disappear, walking through the Great Wall of China, and escaping from Alcatraz, a feat equalled only by Clint Eastwood in the movies. "Dreams & Nightmares" contains a few expansive tricks, as when he bisects his body with a giant laser or fills the theater with enough snow for a midwinter blizzard. But it also includes up-close prestidigitation so modestly scaled that he uses video technology to magnify it.
Which work best, the big attractions or the little ones? Some of the large illusions in "Dreams & Nightmares" are nothing short of astonishing, especially in the first act, when Copperfield changes places with an assistant over an impossible distance in an instant of time.
Others are less startling. While flying is a formidable feat, Superman and Mary Martin are among many who got there first. Some bits are repetitive, as when Copperfield repeats a levitation stunt with variations too minor to keep it fresh.
And a coincidence of timing alters the impact of one trick: Walking through a humongous electric fan is impressive, but Sylvester Stallone does the same thing (several times!) in his Hollywood epic "Daylight," now at multiplexes everywhere. Movie magic is different from the stage variety, of course, but see one fan-blade-crossing and you've seen them all.
By contrast, Copperfield's small illusions are always excellent, aside from some standardized card tricks with little novelty. How does he make a solidly linked chain out of rings he's borrowed from the audience? What makes that Kleenex dance in his hand - and then do the same for a volunteer who appears just as astounded as the rest of us?
That's for Copperfield to know and us to figure out if we can. There's not much depth to "Dreams & Nightmares," despite its sentimental asides and arty musical interludes, but its best moments keep you happily guessing while they unfold before your befuddled eyes. As a bonus, Copperfield has brought along samples of his magic-act memorabilia collection, dating as far back as the 16th century and handsomely displayed in the theater's upstairs lobby.
Assembled with help from filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola and playwright David Ives, the show has worked its magic on Broadway as well, pulling in a record $1.25 million in gross revenues over the Thanksgiving holiday. Even with a hefty 15 shows per week through Dec. 29, the production has already sold out. Copperfield's next TV extravaganza will appear next year on CBS.