PORTLAND, Maine — Norman Ng asked little Abigail to tap the tiny black hat with the wand and say the old magic word, “abracadabra.” The black hat was about the size of a small fist and Ng had held it out to show Abigail and everyone else in the packed Space Gallery that nothing was inside.
But with the magic word uttered, Ng reached in and grabbed the end of a crepe-paper chain, and hand over fist yanked several feet of the brightly colored material out of the hat and wrapped it around Abigail’s shoulders. The audience, mostly children, squealed with delight.
The magic show was one performance of many on the first day of Portland’s Phyzgig festival Tuesday — one of the only vaudeville celebrations left in the country and the lingering “direct descendant” of the city’s now defunct New Year’s Eve party, according to organizers.
Phyzgig, now in its 14th year, will offer performances of various sorts until the evening of Dec. 31, although not through midnight.
“At least in New England, this is one of the only legitimate vaudeville festivals that brings together all forms of performances,” Ng said a few minutes before taking the stage for the afternoon Phyzkids session. “There’s magic, juggling, burlesque and ‘other.’ This is where I go to see the cutting edge of what else is out there.”
The festival features morning and afternoon shows geared for children on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at the Acorn Studio Theater in Westbrook and Space Gallery in Portland. Vaudeville shows for the grown-ups begin Thursday night at the Portland Stage Company, with two more each day slated for Friday and Saturday. The festival’s burlesque show on the Friday late-night agenda will be at the same spot.
A full schedule of performances can be found at phyzgig.org.
Organized in part by the world-renowned Peaks Island-based performer “Avner the Eccentric” Eisenberg, Phyzgig attracts globetrotting acts such as clown Randy Judkins and dancer Karen Montanaro as well as up-and-comers looking to make the jump from street performances to theater stages.
Phyzgig attracts between 1,500 and 2,000 fans a year, depending on the number of performances scheduled, said festival co-director Michael Levine, head of Westbrook’s Acorn Productions.
Behind the proverbial curtain, said Levine, the multiday event has made a name for itself on the physical comedy circuit as a place where stars and newcomers mingle and build camaraderie.
“There definitely is a mentorship component to this,” Levine told the Bangor Daily News. “We have younger performers here getting inside tricks of the trade from more established performers.”
Few such opportunities exist anymore in this country, said Levine, who said that vaudevillian acts are popular in many foreign countries and on cruise ships but have dwindled in America.
Perhaps ironically, one of Portland’s last celebrated venues for magic and juggling acts was the city’s New Year’s Eve party, organized from 1984 until 2002 by Maine Arts Inc. It was held on a smaller scale for a few additional years by a group of business leaders and local volunteers before fizzling out completely in 2006.
“New Year’s festivals used to be bastions for these types of performers, but those events are starting to go away themselves because corporate sponsorships are harder and harder to come by,” Levine said, leaving Phyzgig a kind of baton carrier for a certain crowd of year-end celebrants in Maine’s largest city.
The last week of December “has been a pretty good week for us,” he said. “Parents are looking for activities for their kids during the holiday vacation, and these performance spaces are available for us.”