Mexico-born mentalist Santiago Michel just moved the needle on the scale of Las Vegas entertainment demographics. The 24-year-old UNLV hospitality major is scheduled to premiere his new show, Ilusión Mental (Spanish for “mental illusion”), at Planet Hollywood in the spring. In the meantime, Michel has launched a slate of preview shows at Sin City Theatre (current home of the enduring Crazy Girls revue). But the reason Ilusión Mental is a game-changer is simple and long overdue.
It’s the first Spanish-language-only residency in the history of the Strip.
If you think about it, though, such a show makes sense. Las Vegas is a cosmopolitan destination, after all, and with an increasingly diverse populace and the U.S. economy bustling along quite nicely, Hispanic consumers today spend the most of any minority, according to the Multicultural Economy Report from the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business. Given Michel’s background—born in Mexico City, formally trained at the Moscow Art Theater School in Russia—and his telenovela-star looks, the performer is the ideal candidate to test out the concept of a show presented in a language other than English.
It’s not a sudden leap into the limelight, however; the knocks have been hard and frequent. Michel has paid his dues, performing in nearly a dozen countries around the world with an earlier version of his Vegas show (called El Mentalista), earning acclaim and, well, not very much money en route to Las Vegas. In fact, he’s been performing live in front of audiences since the age of 13—at magic conventions, Cancun bars, elementary schools and anywhere else that would give him an opportunity. But magic became his passion at an even earlier age.
“For my 6th birthday party, my parents hired a magician,” he says over coffee in a Starbucks on the casino floor of Planet Hollywood. “Watching him cast a spell over my friends, my family, made an impression on me, I guess. I just couldn’t shake off the feeling that I was destined to be a performer, too.”
Such an early commitment to the art form made for an unusual childhood. While his peers played with toys and video games, Michel immersed himself in sleights of hand, hypnotism, suggestion. The latter especially intrigued the burgeoning conjurist. He insists that he swore to himself (and to his folks) to never use his powers of manipulation for malicious or self-serving reasons.
“I’ve only been interested in sharing the experience of mystery with an audience,” he says. “In other words, I never use suggestion to secure better grades.”
The grade for his preview shows (one of which this writer recently attended) has to be an A-plus. Despite speaking barely a lick of Spanish, I was able to follow Michel’s suave banter and stunning feats of mentalism with an emphasis on mind reading. Equal parts sheer delight and downright how-did-he-do-that bafflement, Ilusión Mental (an anagram for “Une Mil Latinos”) excels at enlisting audience members into a collective experience that doesn’t shift into the cringey or uncomfortable, even if Michel happens to tell you—without consulting anyone else, of course—the name of the first person you ever kissed.
“Halfway through the show, I want the audience to remain a bit skeptical,” he says. “I want them to wonder if there are ‘plants’ in the show.”
When he observes jaws drop after he reveals specific (but never too personal) details about audience members’ lives, Michel feels a sense of accomplishment. Moving people from disbelief to a state of wonder is, for him, a real honor.
But mind reading is just one part of the show. There are clues hidden within other clues that are divulged at the show’s end. Ilusión Mental doesn’t require a high IQ to enjoy, but it is engrossing on multiple levels—visually, intellectually, even spiritually.
On another level, it’s a collaboration. Producer Tobias Cannon met Michel in Las Vegas a couple years ago. The two began discussing the possibility of introducing (and marketing) a new kind of show on the Strip.
“Las Vegas is a city of possibility, which is also a great metaphor for Santiago’s show,” says Cannon. “Ilusión Mental is about opening our lives to the hidden potential for magic. I’ve been inspired watching Santiago build this rich experience.”
Don’t expect Michel to get a big head. He considers himself “an outlaw,” and is eager to discuss his influences, which range from rock music to art cinema.
“British rock bands, from the Clash to Oasis, express a rebellious attitude that I admire,” he says. “And in film, I feel a kinship with Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky [The Holy Mountain]. We Latinos do everything with a fierce passion.”
When it comes to location, location, location, the Sin City Theatre at Planet Hollywood is the perfect place to unpack.
“We’re in the heart of the Strip, within walking distance from every hotel. And the space is intimate, comfortable. I couldn’t ask for a better venue.”
Preview performances for Ilusión Mental are at 5:30 p.m. every Monday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, $49.99, caesars.com/planet-hollywood/shows