CRISS ANGEL - MINDFREAK
By Brittany Santos
We live in a world of digital overload. We have highly developed special effects, 3D glasses, vibrating movie theater experiences, and some of the most realistic video games and virtual reality technology. It’s a crazy time. Las Vegas, the ‘Entertainment Capital of the World,’ has a lot of shows. Some might say a few too many. There is one thing that I’ve noticed that seems to be consistent at every show in the city and that is how tough the crowds can be. It’s like they get off the plane and when they see all the billboards vying for their entertainment dollar, they have an almost indignant attitude about all the entertainment that’s right at their fingertips. Why be impressed by a guy who can juggle six spinning chainsaws when you can go up the street and see Celine, right? It makes it that much harder for entertainers to grab the audience and create the enthusiasm needed in order to pump up the crowd to the level of a pure adrenaline rush.
As a writer here in town for over a decade, I’ve had the opportunity to witness most of the Vegas shows. Some good, some not so good, and obviously yes, some amazing ones. Before moving here, I visited Las Vegas as a tourist myself, and was able to see the legendary Siegfried & Roy show before it tragically closed. So when we were invited to see the latest version of Criss Angel’s Vegas show, “Mindfreak Live”, I was very excited to see the Goth magician in action. I had seen it a few years back, when the show was called “Believe”. I enjoyed it back then, but what struck me the most when I saw that production was the crowd. Criss didn’t need any hype man to get the audience excited. They were already excited. The energy in the room that night was high from the moment the doors opened, letting us in and winding us through Criss’s display cases and his very impressive motorcycle collection. People were excitedly pointing out things to anyone that would listen, spouting off different facts about their favorite magician, tittering and talking about different episodes of his wildly successful TV show, “Mindfreak”. They were already pumped up and adrenalized, before even getting to their seats. I liked “Believe”. It was a little Cirque Du Soleil’d up, and not in the tradition of what Criss had created with his television show, but the fans didn’t seem disappointed as we left. But now, as of this past June, Criss retooled the show and changed the name to “Mindfreak Live”, with the purpose of making the production more in the vane of his popular A&E series, which was the #1 magic show in television history.
The night that I got to check out the new show, we picked up our tickets and headed towards the showroom. The line waiting to get in thankfully seemed to be at the same excitement level as the last time I saw his show. The lobby looked pretty much like the last time, and the theater hadn’t seemed too different from before, either. The show began and that same high energy level carried throughout the entire performance. I even managed to annoy my friends who attended with me, with way too many “Are You Ready?” imitations as we waited to get in that night. Maestro is still in the production, along with his somewhat ditzy girlfriend, Fifi (also know as Penny Wiggins/Psychic Tanya from The Amazing Johnathan’s long running Las Vegas show). Maestro kicks the show off with a few funny bits, boasting that his magic is far better than Criss’s. It was very funny and a welcome addition to the show. The gothic, somewhat bloody imagery that the show presents to you can get kind of dark at points, nothing scary mind you, but the levity of Maestro is appreciated when Maestro comes out from time to time.
I would offer a big word of warning to anyone coming to see this. Do not under any circumstances take out your phone and try to snap or share any part of the show. A magician of course does not want any of his secrets to get out. And if you are a cracked-out smartphone addict who tries to sneak a few in, and the staff sees you, you will be kicked out. The signs that say this all over the lobby are there for a reason. Plus, it’s no fun watching all the illusions if you are focused on what your “followers” want to see. Put your phone down and just focus on the most important question that you will keep asking yourself, which is: “How did he do that?!?” I can guarantee you that you will ask that question over and over while you watch.
The production guides you through one amazing illusion to the next. The dove illusion, which stayed consistent from the last incarnation of the show, remained, much to my delight (one of my favorite magic tricks I have ever witnessed). Then there are new illusions from Criss’s newest protégé, the latest female mystical phenom, Chloe Crawford, who delivers a magnetic performance. She commands the stage, and you can tell why Criss is grooming her to be a part of his “Supernaturals” magical tour. Her shirts are prominently displayed in his gift shop and her time on stage adds to the magic of what Criss himself brings to the show. Other notable numbers come from the comedic duo of Maestro and Fifi. Their Wild West shootout with an audience volunteer left my party in stitches. Maestro also has a lot of funny bits that include his sword swallowing and making birds magically appear in a way that is uniquely his own. And Fifi plays up the stereotypical blonde girlfriend alongside him, while she not-so-secretly ogles Criss on stage.
The show takes you along on the journey Criss took to become “Magician of The Year” six times – more than any other magician in history. He credits this success to his loyal fans and is quoted saying: “Anything is truly possible when you believe in the power of the mind, body, and human spirit.” I’d also estimate that another credit should be given to the strong family that he hails from. In one segment of the show he takes you on a visual journey of his career, and there is one thread that seems very strong through the whole show, and that is a strong family bond. Criss was born Christopher Nicholas Sarantakos on December 19, 1967, in East Meadow, New York. A closely-knit Greek-American family he was raised in, and owes much of his work ethic to his father, John, who owned a successful restaurant and doughnut shop. Criss’s father passed away from cancer in 1998.
Criss has often shared his story about his Aunt Stella, who showed him a card trick when he was 7 years old. And from that moment on, he was hooked. He practiced magic constantly and got huge satisfaction from knowing that he, at such a young age, could baffle adults. During the show, he shares photos where he would levitate his own mother, Dimitra, at one of his first amateur magic shows, and as he continued, his performances at local restaurants and birthday parties would clear him almost $100 a show. Quite a nice lump sum for someone who hadn’t graduated high school yet.
Against his parents’ wishes, Criss decided to skip college in order to start touring as a magician. Can you imagine that conversation?!
Of all career paths one might decide to embark upon, a career as a successful magician seems the most unlikely route to success. While touring, he would visit public libraries and educate himself on the subjects of magic, the supernatural, music, mysticism, and even dance. It was a self-education to further his art and improve his performances. His big break came in 1994, in a one-hour ABC special called “Secrets”. He performed in NYC during their famed Halloween convention. He would do 10-minute shows 60 times a day. The appearance got him his show in a city underground show, which ran successfully until 2003. But the biggest break came when he landed the Mindfreak television series in 2005. Filmed in the streets of Las Vegas, the series became an historic feat for the magician and ultimately helped him ink the deal with Cirque and the Luxor for his first big Vegas production, “Believe”. His stunts, including walking on water, being suspended by hooks from a flying helicopter, being run over by a steamroller, and levitating over the streets, became viral video sensations, getting millions upon millions of views and consistently still growing to this day.
Criss recently teamed up with A&E again to release a new one-hour magic special with the network called, “Trick’d Up”, in which he and his friends from “The Supernaturalists” tour demonstrated some illusions that not only struck awe and delight, but also freaked out and grossed out a few people, as well. He rips a girl apart right in a hotel suite, mysteriously appears to hotel guests, and more. It’s also edited in a way so that it sets it apart from other shows in its genre— fast-paced and abandoning the standard ‘setup before break and repeat the same clip coming back in from break’—giving the whole thing a rawer experience, plus street magic, stunts, and more. It will be worth looking for the re-plays on this show. He also is taking “MindFreak Live” to Santiago, Chile, on December 16th of this year, for a highly-anticipated international appearance.
His volunteer work with different non-profits, such as the Make a Wish foundation and others, display his true dedication to give back. Yet recently, his charitable efforts have come to hit Criss on a more personal level. His own son, Johnny Crisstopher, was recently diagnosed with a rare form of Leukemia. At age 2, “J.C.”, as Criss affectionately refers to him, is now in remission, having undergone chemotherapy treatments in Australia, where he lives with his mother, Shaunyl Benson. The experience inspired Criss to create the non-profit he calls, H.E.L.P. (Heal Every Life Possible). This past September, he held a star-studded fundraiser right here in Las Vegas, to raise money to help families going through the same ordeal that he had just gone through, himself. He even makes a point at every “MindFreak Live” show to explain to the audience his mission and passion for helping other families dealing with tragic diagnoses like his son’s. At the big fundraiser, Criss showed up with a completely different look. He traded his asymmetrical locks for a sleek, short, surely GQ stylist-approved look. When he arrived on the red carpet for the event, press didn’t recognize the master magician. It was a humorous mix-up on the part of our local media in Vegas. He set a goal of raising $1 million at the event and continues to raise money at every performance. With donation boxes around his showroom, fans can contribute to Criss’s cause. Unlike many other non-profit charities, 100% of your donation will go directly to the fight against child cancer. They don’t deduct even one cent for any expenses, salaries, or overhead. It has now become Criss’s life mission, after working with childhood causes since 2001. His good friend, Dee Snider from Twisted Sister fame, helped Criss create a moving music video tribute to his cause, by taking Snider’s classic song, “We’re Not Gonna Take It”, from a headbanging rock piece into a very touching ballad, depicting a mother shaving her head in tribute to her daughter that lost her battle with childhood cancer. You can donate and be a part of his movement by visiting CrissAngelHelp.com
I know there is a bit of resentment toward Criss in the magic community. Yet, in this genre of entertainment, there isn’t a lot in this digital age that we haven’t seen. Numerous YouTube videos analyzing his most epic Mindfreak appearances run rampant on the Internet. And yes, without being a complete spoiler, when you do see his ramped up version of his show, there are a few audience plants which only help to make the night that much more entertaining. So, petty accusations of trick stealing fall flat, in my opinion. All I know is that when my niece approached him at a press event years ago asking for a picture with him, not only did he take that picture with her, he leaned over and scooped her up in his arms for an amazing photo with her that is still proudly displayed in her home to this day. His sheer determination and drive are a testament to what this man has created. You only need to ask yourself one question in regards to how far he has come as a performer. How many successful magicians do you know? That answer can only wield a handful of answers.
A little bit of crazy, a handful of insanity, a big ole cup of bravery, and sheer commitment has melded this Houdini fan into what he is today. It’s quite a daunting scenario when you look at the body of work this one man has achieved.
I can only assume after viewing the video retrospect that he shares with his audiences night after night. In some of his most bizarre and jarring stunts, there is one thing that I saw that remained true, stunt after insane trick that he performed. His mother—standing there time after time, after time. Sometimes with a horrified expression on her face, and sometimes beaming with unadulterated pride. He is, was, and still continues on a wild journey, and all she can do is look on with pride. My big, fat, Greek family, indeed. Criss is the living embodiment of achieving the impossible and giving back to those who got him there. I hope to see this continue and will pay it forward again and again, to achieve the mastery of that which this iconic magician has perfected, and continues to improve upon with his every accomplishment to our community.
The show, complete with grinding guitarists on either side of the stage, was in-your-face the entire time. It kept you metaphorically on your toes. While glued to your seat the entire time, you steeled yourself for the next time Criss and his cohorts would completely blow your mind. It’s hard to say too much, without giving anything away. I want you to go see the show and get your mind blown, too—so I won’t spoil anything. I will say this though: There wasn’t one moment where you didn’t feel the exuberant energy of the audience. They loved it. I loved it! I came there for a thrill ride of magic, and that is exactly what I got. Criss has two years left on his contract with Cirque Du Soleil and the Luxor. I have to say, this is hands-down one of the best magic shows I’ve ever experienced. Sorry to say, as I have much love and respect for Siegfried and Roy, it just was. Go ahead and get your mind freaked. You will be glad that you did. Purchase tickets and learn more about this iconic persona at: CrissAngel.com