Woke magic at the Merriam: 'Girls don't have to think their only role is to get in the box and get sawn in half.'

Young & Strange illusionists Richard Young (left) and Sam Strange, with aerialist Rachael Kean (in box). Their act is part of the Champions of Magic show at the Merriam Theater.

The #MeToo movement that’s rocking Hollywood has influenced the world of stage magic, too, says British illusionist Richard Young, part of the lineup for this week’s Champions of Magic show at the Merriam Theater.

“The world is changing – for the better, I believe – so we have to be a bit more careful about how we present some beautiful tricks that go back many years,” says Young, who performs with Sam Strange in the duo Young and Strange (yes, those are their real names).

And so it’s often Young himself, not the archetypal “lovely assistant,” who goes into the magic box or behind the curtain. At other times, a showgirl is there but presented as parody – as is the case with the tribute to ’80s Las Vegas that is the grand finale of the tour.

Camera icon Champions of Magic
Illusionist Sam Strange imperils someone in a box. Could it be his performing partner Richard Young?

“If you think honestly about putting a girl in a box and putting swords in it, what is that about?” muses Young. “I don’t think a lot of magicians ask that question, but we do.

“So in our act, the girl that goes into the illusions is an aerialist [Rachael Kean] and has the stage to herself for a few minutes. She’s given status. She’s an inspiration to the young girls in the audience who don’t have to think their only role is to get in the box and get sawn in half.”

Young and Strange share the Champions of Magic stage with three other acts for seven shows Wednesday, June 20, through Sunday, June 24: mind reader Alex McAleer, escapologist Fernando Velasco, and close-up magician Kayla Drescher. “If you’ve never been to a magic show before,” Young says, “it’s the perfect first show because you’ll see a bit of everything.”

He and Strange met as young children and formed a bond at first competitive and later collaborative.

Given the dearth of aspiring magicians in Oxford, England, the two probably would have become friends even if their names were Finklestein and Smith. And they found a comedic chemistry akin to classic duos like Abbott and Costello or Laurel and Hardy, with the tall, fast-talking Strange playing off the shorter, rounder, more put-upon Young.

Camera icon Champions of Magic
The magic duo Young and Strange are one of the acts touring with the U.K.-based Champions of Magic show, at the Merriam Theater June 20-24.

Young and Strange are partial to large-scale illusions, with arena-rock lighting and dazzling pyrotechnics. Young realizes that’s seen as less authentic by some than the seemingly more challenging sleight of hand, but he disagrees.

“People always say that close-up magic is so amazing because you get so close. Fair enough, but if you think it’s amazing being that close and seeing a coin disappear, imagine how amazing it’s going to be when you’re sitting in the front row and a car suddenly appears five feet in front of you. It can be an even stronger experience.”

All five magicians were forced to go back to their roots during their last U.S. tour, when stormy weather in the Pacific Northwest delayed their tractor-trailer full of props. “We all got together and went to Home Depot and stationery shops and put together a show,” Young recalls.

“Somehow, we pulled it off and got a standing ovation with stuff we had found. In some ways, it was more magical with these everyday objects. We all felt like proper magicians.”



Champions of Magic

Performances Wednesday June 20 through Sunday June 24, Merriam Theater, 250 S. Broad St. Tickets: $25-$125
Information: 215-893-1999, kimmelcenter.org.