Illusionist Drew Thomas puts tricks up Atlanta Ballet’s sleeve for ‘Nutcracker’

As “Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker” opens, the handkerchief of the mysterious, magician-like Drosselmeyer blows off the stage and flies high over the Fox Theatre’s front rows. Shortly, the title nutcracker appears — poof! — out of nowhere. Then, after the toy is broken and repaired, it reappears from behind a curtain, somehow bigger.

Publicity materials for ubiquitous productions of the holiday hit always pump “the magic of ‘The Nutcracker.’” But there’s truth in advertising for this year’s edition of “Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker,” which features an extra dose of hocus-pocus.

The eight illusions scattered through the first half of Act 1 were created by Drew Thomas, the dark-visaged magician most famous for making it to the finals of “America’s Got Talent” in summer 2009.

Thomas’ act on the popular NBC reality show was scaled for TV, typically featuring some combination of power tools, scantily clad “Angels” and a soundtrack of wailing guitar solos — or all of the above. That’s pretty far removed from the proper Christmas party unfolding as “Nutcracker” opens inside the grand Stahlbaum house in small-town Germany.

Taking a break from rehearsals where he observed one of the dancers playing Drosselmeyer earlier this week, the Orlando-based magician acknowledged that modern illusions and Tchaikovsky’s classical story ballet, on the surface, appear to be “pieces of two different puzzles.”

In reality, though, they form a perfect fit, he believes.

“The real secret to what I am doing,” Thomas added, “is [employing] the same psychology that I use for my own show.”

This isn’t his first pas de deux, so he should know. At 18, Thomas began his professional magic career in a “Nutcracker” choreographed by Atlanta Ballet artistic director John McFall for his old troupe, Ballet Met in Columbus, Ohio.

Having taken jazz class at Ballet Met as a boy while getting deeply into magic, Thomas was a late addition in the role of Drosselmeyer when another young magician couldn’t mix all the movement with the tricks.

“Movement has always been a natural extension of who I am,” said Thomas, who stepped lightly through an obstacle course of hundreds of boxed nutcrackers in the Fox lobby that were about to stock souvenir stands. “I love to dance.”

For Atlanta Ballet’s 53rd production of “Nutcracker,” being performed 20 times at the 4,600-seat Fox through Dec. 26, Thomas is the offstage teacher of the four dancers portraying Drosselmeyer: Jonah Hooper, Armando Luna, Jesse Tyler and John Welker. But there has been talk that he’ll play the eccentric character next year.

“I would love to,” the 43-year-old illusionist said. “I welcome the opportunity and would do it in a New York minute.”

This, despite the fact that he’s planning to take his magic show on the road for a major American theater tour planned to launch next year and carry into 2014. As a reminder that Thomas is still working his way up the fame ladder, a videographer taped virtually his every move during Fox rehearsals — more promotional grist for his website (www.drewthomasmagic.com).

The reason he’s so nuts for “Nutcracker,” he said, is that the audience is already so engaged in the story that each member is more inclined to go along with any trickery he might add.

“A proper magic show is all about ‘OK, I’ve got a puzzle. Here we go, here’s another puzzle,’” he said.

“This,” Thomas added, referring to the 19th-century dance, “allows me to go deeper.”

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