It’s a sweltering hot night in Las Vegas – still above 100 degrees at 7 p.m. – but magician Mat Franco is playing it cool.
In front of a rapt audience at The Linq casino and hotel, right in the middle of the Vegas Strip, Franco is casually tossing off jokes as he runs through a high-velocity sequence of demanding magic tricks.
The thing is, these are really good tricks – and really good jokes. With effortless charm, Franco is living up to his reputation as one of the best showmen in Las Vegas and one of the most talented illusionists in the small but fiercely competitive world of professional stage magic.
In fact, Franco is the first magician ever to win the $1 million grand prize on NBC’s national variety show “America’s Got Talent.” He took the ninth season crown in 2014 and followed up with his own prime-time special in 2015. He’s also appeared on high-profile shows including “Today,” “Live! with Kelly and Michael” and “Access Hollywood Live.”
His current employers in Vegas think highly of him too. The Linq recently renamed its dedicated performance space “The Mat Franco Theater.”
The good news for Triangle area stage magic buffs — or, really, anyone who appreciates professional show business — is that Franco is taking his act on the road this summer, and North Carolina is his first show of the new tour. Franco will perform Aug. 14, at the Carolina Theatre in Durham.
As it happens, I was on vacation in late July and was able to catch Franco’s show in Vegas. I’m glad I did. I can attest that Franco’s act is both technically impressive and funny. Franco, 30, has the chops of a seasoned career performer. His sleight-of-hand skills are off the charts and Franco has a killer lineup of classic stage magic routines, including a clever vanishing act that still has me freaked out.
Franco says his upcoming traveling act is fundamentally the same as the show he is presenting during his open-ended Las Vegas residency.
“It’s the same, in that it’s the same brand of magic,” Franco says. “It’s just a different lineup of tricks. It’s interactive magic, something that the whole family can enjoy. It’s a road version of the Las Vegas show.”
Franco says he and his team will likely make small adjustments to the act after inspecting the logistics and sight lines of the Carolina Theatre.
“There are always different variables when you’re working with different venues, especially with magic,” he says. “It depends on where the seats are, if it’s a narrow room or a wide room. With the kind of magic I do, we have different ways and tricks we can use to bring the audience in and make sure it’s an intimate experience.”
Like the Vegas show, the touring version of the act also will incorporate cameras and other technologies to give audiences an intimate view of Franco’s particular brand of close-up magic. It’s called stage magic, a technical term that refers to sleight-of-hand manipulations with playing cards, coins, and — in one of Franco’s weirdest tricks — ramen noodle packages.
As a kid, I was a huge magic nerd, so I’m familiar with a few of the basic secrets of close-up magic — techniques like false transfers, misdirections and palming maneuvers. But even during the few times I could follow Franco’s approach with an effect, I still couldn’t figure it out. I knew what he was doing, and how he was doing it, but I couldn’t see him actually do it.
Another of Franco’s showcase sequences involves an effect known as card production, where the magician appears to summon playing cards out of thin air. In the Vegas show, Franco elicited audible gasps when he performed his version of this trick, causing a cascade of cards to tumble from his seemingly empty hand.
Franco puts a nice twist on the maneuver, too, by showing old home movie footage of how he used to produce this effect back when he was a kid, doing tricks for his grandma. Franco’s obsession with magic started at age four, and by age 12 the Rhode Island native was flying off to Vegas to attend weekend workshops and tutorials on stage magic.
Blending magic and humor
After finishing high school, Franco honed his act the traditional way, taking his act on the road and performing on the college circuit. During these years, he developed his trademark light and funny style, eschewing the faux-mysterious vibe of acts like David Copperfield or Criss Angel.
Franco sees a lot of similarities between his act and straightforward standup comedy.
“Like take the setup and the punchline,” he says. “The parallel there in magic is the build-up and resolution of the trick, just the way things are structured. I like to get as many laughs per minute as a comedian does. I really feel that my job is to entertain.”
Franco sees another show-biz parallel to his style of magic.
“When you watch a movie, you don’t over-analyze how the special effects are done,” he says. “You know the movie’s fake. You know the movie’s fictional. But you love the movie anyway. With magic, it’s not always like that, but my perspective is that it should be.”
In other words, if you’re just trying to figure out the trick, then Franco feels he hasn’t does his job.
“My style is just not a confrontational style – like, ‘See if you can figure this out,’” he says. “We’re in this together.”
As a result, many of Franco’s best tricks are highly interactive, involving the audience in every step of the presentation. His Vegas show – called “Magic Reinvented Nightly” – revolves around this strategy, so much so that each night’s performance is based on random suggestions and decisions from audience volunteers. At least, the suggestions and decisions seem to be random.
But that’s the real trick, isn’t it?
“It’s just like we’re friends hanging out, and I’m going to show you some really cool stuff,” Franco says. “We can’t do the show without each other.”
Who: Mat Franco
Who: 8 p.m. Aug. 14
Where: Carolina Theatre, 309 W. Morgan St., Durham
Info: carolinatheatre.org or 919-560-3030