Helder’s Present! Magic goes virtual, and hits the jackpot.

On Saturday, October 17th, I was lucky enough to be one of the people attending the Grand Finale of Helder Guimarães’ virtual magic show The Present.

The show was presented in association with The Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles and Saturday was the final night of a sold-out 24-week engagement, and I caught it just in the nick of time. During its run the show brought in an estimated 700,000 dollars according to Geffen Executive Director Gil Cates Jr. During a time where conventional theater has all but disappeared, this Zoom show has been extended three times and attracted 6,000 viewers for its grand finale. This final performance was a dedicated fundraiser for COVID-related performer charities and raised more than 150,000 dollars in a single night. Not bad for a pandemic year!

What exactly is The Present? It was a 70-minute interactive magic show presented by Portuguese card master Helder Guimarães. Helder has been performing his one-man theatrical magic show about 13 times a week for an average ticket price of 95 dollars. For each performance, a neatly wrapped package was mailed out to the 25 households that participated in the performance. Inside the box was a selection of props that allowed the home audience to participate in real-time with the onscreen action. The production had a somewhat hokey autobiographical thread, involving Helder’s grandfather, which ties together the wafer-thin storyline that turned the magic show into a “theatrical event.” The show was directed by Hollywood heavyweight Frank Marshall who also functioned in this capacity for Guimarães’ 2019 live production Invisible Tango. Marshall was the producer of the Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, and Jurassic Park movie franchises.

The success of The Present had a great deal to do with the artful simplicity of the production. The event was staged in a corner of Helder’s Los Angeles apartment, with his girlfriend Catarina Marques’ providing simple and effective camerawork. Most of the Zoom magic I have experienced has been severely handicapped by the camera being unable to effectively shift focus in order to fully catch the magical action. The Present solved that visual problem in a way that never seemed showy but always natural. Frank Marshall’s direction was deceptively understated, and at no point distracted from the feeling of sitting down with a master magician within his own home. The lighting, props, and costuming similarly made no intrusion on the sense of casual discovery that I suspect intrigued many viewers. The fact that the show even credited a costume designer had me wondering to what degree the production was reaching to underscore its theatrical standing. However, after 251performances the potential to appear too slick or “showbiz” could have been an easy mistake to slip into. I suspect part of Marshall’s skill as a director was making sure that this didn’t happen.

The pre-show excitement of receiving the “Mystery Box” in the mail, which required opening during the show was quite an active factor in building up expectations for the actual Zoom show. Those of us attending the enlarged Grand Finale streaming of the show were able to purchase a scaled-down 15 dollar “Mystery Envelope.” We also paid a reduced 25 dollar fee to merely watch the proceedings in a non-interactive manner. The 25 actual participants in the show could be seen on screen individually during their participation in addition to adding effective human reactions to the proceedings en mass. The Zoom functions were smooth, efficient, and nicely executed. A special shout out to Mel whose initial Zoom greeting and briefing of the participants was friendly and added nicely to establishing a pleasant mood for the show. Her warm personality added a great deal to what could have been a fairly unexciting prelude to the evening’s actions.

One of the reasons that The Present has been such a huge success is that unlike a live magic production in the Geffen Playhouse the show benefited greatly from both national and international press. The Washington Post, New York Times, The Observer, and many other newspapers contributed to an avalanche of overwhelmingly positive reviews for the production. With the devastating effects of the COVID pandemic on the world of theater, it is only natural that friendly media wish to laud any project that bucks the negative trends. The Present certainly took the national zeitgeist and turned the limitations into a powerful marketing/performance tool. At one point 12,000 people were on a waiting list for one of those 25 coveted interactive spots that each performance offered. It is wonderful that Guimarães, Marshall, and the Geffen Playhouse (or as it has been whimsically renamed The Stayhouse) caught performance lightning in a bottle in such an amazing fashion.

Helder Guimarães has been a favorite of Los Angeles magicians since he first started teaming up with Derek DelGaudio at Hollywood’s world famous Magic Castle. In November 2012, these two young performers took their magical skills to the Geffen Playhouse with their magical performance piece Nothing to Hide, which was directed by the Magic Castle’s own Neal Patrick Harris. Helder’s ex-partner DelGaudio recently completed a lengthy and highly acclaimed New York run of his magical play In & Of Itself. The play was directed by legendary director Frank Oz, and Derek and Oz will soon be releasing a video version of the show. It is exciting to see the success of these hybrid magic/theater productions that follow in the footsteps of Ricky Jay’s various collaborations with David Mamet. It probably helps with theatrical ventures like these to have a well-established director onboard. Though in reality, it is more realistic to realize that the true starting point is primarily in having the kind of unique talent that attracts directors of this caliber.

At this point, it is appropriate to discuss the content of The Present, and see why it has appealed so much to audiences who were not necessarily predisposed to enjoy an evening of complex card tricks. The show has seen family audiences, hipsters, regular folk, and celebrities enjoying and participating in the kind of multi-phased lengthy routines that in many ways seem the antipathy of what many would consider “commercial” magic. Helder’s approach to most of these routines involves multiple climaxes that just keep layering impossibility upon impossibility until the spectator is buried in amazement and just has to gasp and applaud. While there is one non-card effect it is fair to say that playing cards are overwhelmingly the focus of the show. 

I sometimes wanted Helder’s effects to be just a little bit more concise and streamlined, but that is just my “less is more” taste. The lay audience absolutely loved what went down. Probably my personal opinions are somewhat tainted by being a magician. It is important to realize that magicians are not the key demographic for this production, if they were then Guimarães would probably still be performing in the Parlor at the Magic Castle!  Having heard and disagreed with many magic “experts” who proclaim that you can’t construct an appealing magic show just containing card tricks I am delighted to say this show proves you can. David Blaine’s most recent TV special proved this same point, and I think it is worthwhile for any ambitious magician to study both these performers and define why they can succeed at this endeavor.

I am not going to go deeply into what effects Helder used to ensnare his viewers, I would only use a lot of words and fail to fully paint the picture. Suffice to say I enjoyed all the individual effects and so did those vitally important 25 “live” participants who acted as our emotional conduits to the action. However, I would be remiss if I failed to mention Guimarães’ excellent handling of Woody Aragon’s Love Ritual routine. As an interactive piece of card magic, this routine is very tough to beat, which may explain why Penn & Teller have used it to close out their full evening show. This particular piece cuts to the heart of what made The Present such a powerful show. The effect embraces separate location interaction turning it into a vibrant shared experience. Those not familiar with Woody’s original effect should be prepared to be amazed.

The magic world has been awash with Zoom magic shows since COVID-19 divided and separated magicians from the audiences that their craft requires. Many of these shows are free but still sparsely attended, and I doubt there will be a huge demand for Zoom magic shows once the pandemic returns our audiences to their rightful spot in front of us. The Present, however, is a huge triumph of the right product at the right time. Guimarães and Marshall return to the Geffen Stayhouse in December 2020 with their next production The Future, and if you missed their last production I advise you to book your virtual place at the table early as I suspect it will be another smash!

~ by Nick Lewin on December 13, 2020.

3 Responses to “Helder’s Present! Magic goes virtual, and hits the jackpot.”

  1. I was there for that last show on October 19th too Nick! You did a wonderful job of doing it justice in your review. 🙂

  2. Thank you Robert!

  3. Fabulous and superbly written review – thanks Nick!

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