The trick is to keep playing
BRITNEY SPEARS is having a whale of a time in Las Vegas.
Nothing is what it seems in Las Vegas. It is a city built on illusion - the illusion that a desert can be home to half a million people, the illusion you can gamble your way to happiness, and the strange illusion of celebrity.
Maybe that’s why the world’s great illusionists are drawn here. As if Las Vegas, with all its preposterous excesses, wasn’t magical enough, it is a magnet for magicians. Some mean nothing to the foreign visitor. They’re just men with creepy coiffure and spangly jackets. But others, such as Penn and Teller or Siegfried and Roy (at least until Roy Horn’s unfortunate on-stage mauling by a white tiger last year), are international names. If you want to be on the A-list of conjurors, this is where you’ve got to come.
But illusions can work both ways. Just as the half-size Eiffel Tower, the reproduction Brooklyn Bridge and the ersatz pyramid turn out to be fake, so the make-believe faades can hide things of beauty and substance. Just look at the jaw-dropping modern art exhibition - featuring originals by Renoir, Picasso, Czanne and Mir - beyond the copy-cat canals and cheesy gondoliers of the Venetian hotel-casino. You never know what you’re going to find in this city.
Picture yourself, then, in a cul de sac in a residential La Vegas suburb on the cusp of the desert. The temperature is a dry 100F, barren sun-scorched mountains are behind you and the odd wisp of tumbleweed drifts by. Aside from that, you could be in Brookside Close. All that distinguishes the house in front of us are the half-dozen cars in the drive.
But step inside and think again. A 35-year-old man is standing on a baby grand wearing a top hat made of playing cards and sporting a white silk scarf over his short-sleeved shirt. He is holding a length of curtain material in front of him while a young woman attempts to crawl between his legs. Sitting at the keyboard, a pianist looks on with an air of bewilderment.
These are the men who put the magic in Britney’s fateful January night out. Jarrett Parker - that’s him standing on the piano - is the magician who once "hated" classical music. Raja Rahman - the 30-year-old at the ivories - is the musician who thought magic was performed by weirdos.
Their show, which comes to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this month, is a collision between lowbrow Las Vegas dazzle and highbrow European aesthetics. It features a disappearing rabbit, a Houdini-like escape, a swords-in-a-box routine and concert renditions of the great classical composers. In the very best way, they have their cake and eat it. What other show in Edinburgh this summer will feature dancing girls, feather boas and escapology as well as Chopin, Vivaldi and Schubert?
"Our show has a certain camp element," says Jarrett, whose stage-wear includes a cowboy outfit complete with snakeskin hat, leather chaps and a raincoat painted with a Wild West desert. "What surrounds us - the glitz, our showgirls, the shimmer and the production numbers - is all part of who we are."
Scattered around them in what was once a domestic living-room are the most unlikely objects. There’s something that looks like a medieval hangman’s gallows with a set of kitchen implements dangling lethally from a moveable platform; there are two rows of equally dangerous stainless-steel swords; there is a mobile shower unit on casters and an outsize ghoulish head with ferocious eyes staring wildly from inside a glass case.
No wonder the neighbours are desperate to know what’s going on here. This is the world of Jarrett & Raja, one a showbiz magician who has worked with Debbie Reynolds and Bill Cosby, the other a Juilliard-trained pianist who has toured with Mstislav Rostropovich and Sir Georg Solti. By some quirk of fate, they’ve ended up on stage together. Like Ernie Wise trying to perform his plays while Eric Morecambe undermined him, Jarrett & Raja have created classic double-act dynamics out of their own personalities. Their show is summed up with deft economy by the poster on the wall: "Jarrett & Raja: magician - concert pianist - conflict."
IT’S the early days of Jarrett Parker’s rise to fame and he has been booked as the warm-up act for the filming of Michael Jackson’s ‘Bad’ video. There’s all the free Pepsi the audience can drink, billowing smoke machines and the endless repetition of the opening bars of the yet-to-be-released track. Jarrett goes down a storm with his fast-moving and flashy magic set, priming the crowd for the arrival of Jacko on stage. Backstage, the shoot over, Jarrett is invited to meet Jackson and his chimpanzee Bubbles. He does some close-up magic for the superstar, and they hit it off just fine.
If you were going to find two less likely candidates for a Las Vegas magic act you’d be hard pressed to beat Jarrett & Raja. By rights, these guys should be high-flying Washington lawyers or Wall Street whizz kids. Jarrett’s father was a Yale University specialist in economics. His mother worked at Yale too, teaching dance and stage movement. Raja’s background is equally bookish. "Everyone in my family has PhDs," he says.
Yet here they are living together - they are partners on and off stage - with their two dogs in a big modern home in Las Vegas, where they hang out with their friends Siegfried (of Siegfried and Roy) and Teller (of Penn and Teller) when they’re not playing to the crowds on the Strip. That they have done all right for themselves is evident by the three cars, the swimming-pool, the outsized TV, the double-door fridge and all the creature comforts the modern consumer could want. Yet it’s hardly the life their parents would have mapped out for them. "It took about two years of doing what we do before I actually told my mother," laughs 30-year-old Raja, who plays up to his clean-cut image when performing by shaving off his goatee and swapping his jeans and T-shirt for a dinner jacket. "My parents are very musically traditional. They were expecting their son to be another Horowitz. I didn’t even tell a lot of my musical friends about this."
For Jarrett, the journey was not so clandestine, but it took some enterprise to forgo the expected university path. He was a classic case of the schoolboy who discovers he can avoid a beating by entertaining his fellow students. So impressed were they, in fact, that in his senior year they voted him class president. "I found that through magic I was able to make friends," he says. "I had problems dealing with other kids, so when I learned to do magic it was just the greatest thing - to make friends with people."
"That’s still the reason he does magic," chips in Raja.
"Do you think if George Bush did magic he would gain any more respect?" retorts Jarrett.
"No," laughs Raja, "he’d expose all the tricks."
In their own ways, the two of them were obsessives. Raja spent his teenage years sitting at the keyboard religiously for upwards of four hours a day. "I was always a social guy, but I had no social life," he says.
So gifted was he that by the age of 11, after only three years of lessons, he was entering competitions and consistently winning. By 14, he was travelling from his home in the Canadian capital, Ottawa, to take part in competitions in the US, where he continued to win. He graduated early, at 17, from high school to take up a college place in St Louis for two years. From there he transferred to the Juilliard School in New York, one of the foremost conservatories in the world.
Jarrett’s acquisition of skills was no less driven. He remembers making tapes of his favourite TV magicians, studying their techniques, researching their history. "My father gave me a magic set when I was about seven," he says. "What I really loved about it was that it was interactive - he would sit with me and we’d do the magic together. It was a lot of fun."
When Jarrett was ten, his father took a year-long sabbatical in the UK. On the sea voyage across the Atlantic, the boy was mesmerised by a magician who ate razor blades. Years later, he would recreate the same trick to a Beethoven accompaniment from Raja. In true boy-wizard style, he was sent to the Dragon School in Oxford, and on a visit to London he discovered Davenports, his first magic shop. He bought a rope trick and figured it out instantly. He was hooked.
His talent was as precocious as his future partner’s, and back in America he would perform at children’s parties and at his father’s academic gatherings. He took acting classes in New York City and picked up work in commercials. That’s when he saw an advert calling for variety performers to audition for the Playboy Club. With his three assistants, known as the Masters of Magic, he got the gig for the whole summer. "It was stock magic," he says, "but what was different was how we presented it. It was extremely theatrical, which made the effects more dramatic and powerful. Personality is the key to making it your own."
He’d hardly graduated from high school and the bookings were rolling in. Still in his teens, he did a 30-city promotional tour for Nintendo, turning in six shows a day. Realising where his true passion lay, he rejected the chance to go to university, and set about learning his craft in earnest. "I studied with the greats of magic," he says. "They’re not at university: I had to seek them out and learn from them."
You can see how seriously he takes his magic. The house is decorated with posters of illusionists: Houdini, the Great Sorcar and Thurston, "the great magician", firing a crossbow at his assistant while little red devils dance about his heels. The bookshelves are laden with titles such as Mystery School and The Book of Secrets, plus five volumes of The Encyclopaedia of Dove Magic. Hidden from view beneath a table in their large living-room lies a box. You can just make out the words: "Magic by Mr Creepy: 13 hair-raising tricks. For ages seven and up."
RAJA RAHMAN arrives in New York City, still the innocent boy from Ottawa. On the sidewalk he sees a man playing three-card monte. This is not so much a game as a scam. Raja falls for it. All he has to do is keep his eye on three cards as the man arranges them on a cardboard table. If he identifies the blue one he gets 100. There’s another man on the sidewalk betting very successfully. This is easy. But not only does Raja lose the 100 in his pocket, he goes straight to the bank to withdraw 300 more to recoup his losses. That’s 400 a student can ill afford. Today, he sits in humiliation while Jarrett does the same trick for fun.
By the time the two men met in New York City in 1995, Raja had dropped out of a PhD course after a miserable two years in Indiana, while Jarrett had been acting in commercials in LA and developing a magic show in which he performed his own songs. Their careers advanced in parallel until 1997, when Jarrett was offered a three-week slot at the Friars Club on 55th Street. But there was a catch: they had no sound system and they didn’t want him to sing. They did, however, have a piano.
Just as he had recruited his friends to be his assistants as a child, Jarrett called on Raja to join him on stage. "I didn’t take it very seriously at first," says Raja. "I certainly didn’t think of it as a career. I just thought it was an interesting thing to do."
Interesting, perhaps, but also fraught with tensions. "The biggest problem was that I was not familiar with having these boundaries in music," says Jarrett. "I’d always done it so that the music follows the magic. We had a lot of fights. We both had to surrender something. That was very difficult for the ego of a magician and the ego of a concert pianist. I also had problems with the type of music he was suggesting: how do I produce an elephant to Brahms?"
But out of this offstage tension emerged the very heart of their act. Behind all the light-hearted entertainment, the show is about this very clash of high and low cultures. Jarrett & Raja are very aware of what they’re doing. "When I was in New York, you didn’t see any glitz and glamour," says Jarrett. "It’s raw, it’s T-shirt and jeans, and you want to be as far away from Vegas as possible. I was part of that. In coming here to Vegas, I look at all this and laugh at it too. It’s hilarious - we’re in a land of illusion."
But the glitz, glamour and bad taste can be detrimental, argues Raja. "I would say most magicians don’t have much taste," he says. "What they perceive as good taste in their show just ends up being really gaudy. In our show, if there are any elements of Vegas style, it is thoroughly on purpose."
Raja relishes the chance to bring classical music to people who would not otherwise hear it, but he has to make cruel showbiz compromises to do so. "I have to surgically cut the music," he says. "In that sense, I’m compromising the integrity of the music. I’m waiting for the music critics in Edinburgh to ask why I bastardised the music. For example, the ending from the ‘Meditation’ from Thas is so beautiful and melancholy, but because there is a big effect at the end of this piece I’ve had to end it in a grander way. That was a big fight. I try to minimise the surgery I do."
The upside is that Jarrett can show off his magic in a new light. "Magic is an art," he says, "and art inspires people, so how can someone say magic is not an art form when you have these amazing revelations, that feeling where you forget about everything? That’s an emotional, natural element that every human being has, and if it is lost it’s a tragedy. When you ask me if I can lift it to another level with classical music, I don’t see why not, because you’re dealing with two arts coming together. You get the immediate reaction to the magic and the more long-term feeling from the music."
Back at the suburban rehearsal studio, the truck arrives with their most glitzy stage prop. It takes half a dozen of us to lift the custom-built box down and wheel it inside. Standing easily 10ft high, it’s a huge aluminium ampersand - the typographic symbol linking Jarrett & Raja - decorated with thousands of mirrors which shimmer in the light while a flashing red beam pulses around the perimeter. It’s the gaudy centrepiece of their stage set. Jarrett climbs on top and tries it for size. He’s very happy with it.
Now the flamboyant costumes are ready, the showgirls are choreographed and Edinburgh is firmly in their sights. The trip across the Atlantic is all part of their quest for the kind of credibility Las Vegas can’t give them. Edinburgh is the first base in their journey to achieve it. "London is such a cultural city - our presence there is very important for where we want to go," says Raja, who hopes the show will transfer south. "Edinburgh is a stepping stone. Now it’s up to us to deliver a product that really entertains. They haven’t had a show like this in the festival for many years."
Are they ambitious? "Of course," says Raja without hesitation. "Our short-term goals are the West End, and our long-term goals are far greater than that. We really don’t want to settle for anything but the very top - to get what we believe in so powerfully to the world."
"But if all else fails," says Jarrett, "there’s always Burger King."
Jarrett & Raja, Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh, August 6-28, 8.55pm. For tickets, see www.assemblyrooms.com or call 0131 226 2428
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