For Pittsburgh Theatre
Robert Ramirez: The Musical Theatre Magician
December 20, 2019
Magician, singer, dancer, piano and ukulele player, Robert Ramirez is a talent unlike any you’ll see. The show opens not with a message from the venue’s staff about turning off phones but with Ramirez sitting at the keyboard off to the side of the stage and singing a funny song that lists all the things the audience shouldn’t do during the show — text, keep their phone's ringer on, unwrap candy, etc. It ends with Ramirez telling the audience to not even breathe, which of course gets a laugh, and then Ramirez disappears off-stage before Zoe, the house manager at Liberty Magic, formally introduces him.
Pittsburgh is incredibly lucky to have Liberty Magic, one of a handful of venues in the country dedicated solely to magic. The aesthetic of the venue is a speakeasy, packed from floor to ceiling with magic tricks and posters and books. It’s intimate, less than 70 seats in four rows, so every trick happens up close and its easy for Ramirez to banter with the audience and ask for their help with a few tricks. The atmosphere is relaxed and familiar, the audience chatting, getting a small dose of magic from Liberty Magic’s house magician, Jon Tai, and pouring themselves drinks (as if the talent and décor weren’t enough, Liberty Magic is a BYOB). After Ramirez’s opening number, the room is in high spirits and ready to settle in for the rest of the show, joking back with him and eagerly assisting him when he asks.
In a white shirt, black tie and suspenders, he commands the stage and interacts with the audience, always keeps them guessing. A Jason Robert Brown number at the piano can be followed up by a Gene-Kelly-esque tap dancing magic trick or a ukulele song or a ukulele magic trick. The magic he performs ranges from card manipulations to very old apparatuses to a trick with a Blockbuster VHS to ones that merge his magic with his musical theatre skills.
It’s his mixture of magic and theatre that makes the show so fresh, exciting, and delightfully unexpected. To each trick there's a twist and a theatricality that makes it even more impressive than it had already been. The “Musical Theater Magician”, as the posters dub him, is aptly named.
During the show, Ramirez, who is from LA, gives a short, humorous summary of his life's story as an intro to Jason Robert Brown's "Being a Geek" which he then plays on the piano. When I ask him for a more detailed biography later, he goes further into detail but keeps it funny.
“My sister is three years older than I am, so in high school she was a senior when I was a freshman. I watched her decide what she wanted to do with her life, so instead of me deciding to do something different, it was easier for me to decide to do the same thing. She did a lot of improv and drama in high school, so it was very easy for me to just go along with what she was doing. I was known as “Allison’s little brother.”
“I didn’t know about having a career performing. I just knew that I liked it so much that it was all I wanted to do. Around my junior or senior year, I started doing some local theatre and the choreographer had a studio in town, so I would spend an hour or two after school taking jazz and ballet class. (I actually didn’t take any tap classes until college.) That’s when I really knew that performing was what I wanted to do for a living. I went to Citrus College in Glendora and did a program called the Citrus Singer Program.”
While he’s here in Pittsburgh mostly as a magician, the songs (and dances!) he performs in his show highlight his range of talents and his musical-theatre roots. Ramirez has performed in Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights three times, the first as Sonny and understudying the lead, Usnavi, in the 2011 Second National Tour.
“In the Heights changed my entire life. It was so amazing to work with people like Lin, Alex [Lacamoire], and the original creative team. It was incredible to work with them and see the level of professionalism and creativity that’s possible in the arts. Something in my magic that I always push for is seeing if that creativity is possible. I watched four guys remount the show they created and heard them talk about the reasons why things existed in the show that nobody knows unless you were in the company, which is fascinating. For me, magic has a lot of similarities to that: the creativity behind it, its meaning and why, whether the audiences realize it or not. It’s very cool because I get to use creativity that was spawned from a Broadway show and use it in the magic world.”
He talks, words tumbling over each other with excitement and reverence, about the rhyme schemes and patterns of In The Heights and raps a bit of the finale. Talking one-on-one, Ramirez is just as charming and charismatic as he is on-stage. He is easy-going and has stories and history to answer each question, a sense of humor, and is friendly, making it into a conversation less than interview.
During the Skeleton Key VIP Experience, which is an even smaller, more private post-show Q&A with a couple of tricks, Ramirez talks easily with everyone in attendance, answering questions and offering a little magic history before doing a couple extra tricks. Even with questions being fired at him — “What’s it like to perform at the magic castle?”, “What about performing on Penn & Teller’s Fool Us?”, “How did you get into magic?” — he’s calm, collected, and eloquent; his passion for magic is evident. He lights up when he talks about the famous magicians of the past and the magic world today, the way it’s changing, with “Instagram Magic” leading the way. It’s impossible not to share his excitement and smile back when he gives a mini magic history lesson or performs a card trick. He makes it look easy, though his skill and precision make it obvious that he works incredibly hard at his art.
Ramirez's show doesn't depend on lighting or angles to create the illusions, though he acknowledges that they have a place in magic. “The kind of tricks you’re doing will depend on the angles. But the majority of my tricks don’t rely on angle sensitivity. The last trick—” a crazy card manipulation where he makes cards appear and disappear “— is set up in a way where if you’re in a “bad seat” you’re getting a different show that’s not any less impressive than if you were straight on. So to me, it’s really fun because you get a little insight into how it works, but at the same time, you’re kind of bewildered that that’s how it works.”
At the end of our chat, Ramirez pulls out a deck of cards — it seems like all magicians have the tools of their trade on them at all times. He pulls out the four aces face up and grins before doing a series of hand-passes that has the aces flipping over in his hands. Despite the fact that he is sitting right next to me and performing the trick slowly, I can’t figure out how he does it.
He grows pensive and says, “I think constantly about how to make something better, easier, more subtle. I love subtle deception where something is just small enough that if you replayed it in your head, you’d remember that small thing I did and go, ‘Oh, he did that small thing so that cancels out that explanation; I have no idea.’ There’s a principle called the “Too Perfect Principle” that says, "If a trick is too perfect, if it looks like there’s only one way the trick can be done, that’s the only way that trick can be done." There’s this balance you have to find in magic of something that’s not too perfect so that the audience doesn't say, for example, ‘The only explanation is that he made him pick that card,’ because if that’s the only explanation, that has to be how it's done. Either you have to subtly dismiss that or make the trick just mysterious enough that there’s not enough ground to stand on to accept just one of five possible explanations, but that the audience can’t really settle on any singular explanation. That’s something I push really hard for in my show.”
Ramirez accomplishes the subtlety he hopes for. As people are leaving, they’re whispering to each other trying to figure out how he did various tricks, offering up differently solutions that grow increasingly creative before they give up.
Whether Ramirez comes back to Pittsburgh as a magician, musical theatre performer, or combination of both, we’ll be glad to welcome him back. Be sure to catch one of his shows before he disappears!
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