HOUDINI, Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire. Escape artist Harry Houdini still fascinates with his spectacular magic and his anticlimactic death: he died of peritonitis after an athlete punched his stomach before he was ready for the blow. Celebrated as a cultural archetype in Ragtime, the illusionist now has his own musical--a new work with Broadway ambitions that dutifully traces Eric Weisz's life from poverty (a traditional Jewish childhood in Appleton, Wisconsin) to fame.

Sporting serviceable but unspectacular songs by William Scott Duffield and James Racheff, this overlong work depicts the Houdini who industriously exposed spiritualist charlatans and escaped various tight spots, including manacles and municipal jails. Unfortunately, to add conflict, book writer Racheff has fabricated a hokey plot in which Harry's brother and partner, jealous of Harry's success, covets his wife.

Gabriel Barre's period-perfect staging boasts well-crafted characters: Bernie Yvon, who's sympathetic if not charismatic as mama's boy Houdini; Tom Daugherty as his improbably devious brother; and Kate Baldwin as Harry's much-tested helpmate. The big draws, however, are re-creations of Houdini's disappearing acts from a trunk, a straitjacket, handcuffs, chains, and a water tank. Coached by Peter Samelson, these feats revive the awe that must have overwhelmed Houdini's original audiences. Regrettably, the final moment--which implies that Houdini could return from the grave--would have made the master's blood boil.

--Lawrence Bommer

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