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David Copperfield: Dreams & Nightmares

Performing his "grand illusions" at Broadway's intimate (by Las Vegas standards, anyway) Martin Beck Theater, magician -- all right, all right, illusionist -- David Copperfield prestidigitates a crowd-pleasing (at some points a crowd-stunning) show that's already breaking box-office records.

Performing his “grand illusions” at Broadway’s intimate (by Las Vegas standards, anyway) Martin Beck Theater, magician — all right, all right, illusionist — David Copperfield prestidigitates a crowd-pleasing (at some points a crowd-stunning) show that’s already breaking box-office records. The sold-out, limited run will thrill Copperfield’s loyal fans by providing a closer glimpse than any casino could provide, and more than a few skeptics will be transformed into believers.

The production, titled “Dreams & Nightmares,” is a tailored version of Copperfield’s touring show, enhanced for Broadway with a thin narrative line (courtesy of playwright David Ives) and a dramatic visual design by Tony- and Academy Award-winner Eiko Ishioka (“M. Butterfly,” “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”). Both Ives and Ishioka apparently were recruited by Copperfield friend and “creative adviser” for the show Francis Ford Coppola.

A-list overkill? Perhaps. The narrative through-line, some saccharine stuff involving a young actor portraying Copperfield as an awe-struck boy, is more superfluous than grating (though the same can’t always be said for the recorded music, which ranges from syrupy B-movie pabulum to more effective rock and New Age sounds). Ishioka’s contributions mostly involve smoke, light and a giant picture frame that occasionally descends as a backdrop.

All of which matter little when Copperfield gets down to business. In an era when deconstructionists like Penn & Teller and ironic hipsters (Ricky Jay and all of his 52 assistants) have forced traditionalists into the casino cornpone category of Siegfried and Roy, Copperfield makes no apologies for his large-scale trickery. The melodramatic flourishes and pseudo-ballet posing can give the show a retro feel (despite the sci-fi effects and rock-music percussion), but sophisticates smirking at the hambone kitsch would fall right into Copperfield’s trap: The glitzy showmanship is his way of diverting attention. From what? From anything he doesn’t want you to see, and it works time and time again.

With a likable, self-effacing demeanor that rarely comes across in his TV specials, Copperfield leads the audience through nearly two hours of truly mind-boggling illusions. He disappears and reappears, gets cut in half ( he’s a supreme contortionist), makes audience members vanish and others levitate. A sealed envelope is opened to reveal a copy of the graffiti just drawn on a large backdrop by an audience volunteer, and rings taken directly off audience fingers somehow become interlocked even though their circles are unbroken (video cameras zoom in for close-ups, the images shown on a large, onstage screen).

Some of the show’s quieter delights come as Copperfield wanders the theater’s aisles, at one point making a wadded-up tissue float and dance mid-air only inches from a giggling volunteer. Although the performer occasionally seemed uncomfortable with the production’s more obviously written narrative, he displayed an easy confidence and rapport with the audience, whether teasing late-comers or recruiting nervous volunteers.

Copperfield climaxes his show with a flying routine, seven years in the making, that defies both logic and visual evidence — he could probably retire just by selling his secrets to future productions of “Peter Pan.”

Unfortunately, he follows his flight with a brief coda that resurrects the child actor, a ploy that isn’t nearly as moving as Copperfield (or Ives?) wants us to believe. His strong suit is magic, pure and simple (well, pure anyway), and the forced poignance ends “Dreams & Nightmares” on a lackluster note that is perhaps the only thing Copperfield can’t make disappear. Yet.

David Copperfield: Dreams & Nightmares

Martin Beck Theater, New York; 1,346 seats; $67.50 top

Production: A Magicworks Entertainment and PACE Theatrical Group presentation of a performance in two acts by magician David Copperfield.

Creative: Adapted by David Ives; creative adviser, Francis Ford Coppola; visual design, Eiko Ishioka; additional lighting, Robert Wierzel. Opened Dec. 5, 1996; reviewed Dec. 3. Running time: 1 hour, 50 min.

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