Denise Truscello / WireImage / DeniseTruscello.net
Monday, Dec. 22, 2014 | 1:55 p.m.
The number is familiar for those with a fair knowledge of Broadway musicals. It is the showstopper “One” from “A Chorus Line,” as the show’s dancers lock arms and spin in a circle while facing the audience.
The speed of those dancers’ feet intensifies, as does the beating of your heart. Just one misstep and the act falls apart, for real, face first. To have that happen would mark the most egregious tumble ever in Strip entertainment, as this is the signature number played out on opening night in “Steve Wynn’s Showstoppers.”
That moment in the ensemble number is a metaphor for Wynn’s grand effort at Encore Theater. Fittingly, those dancers circuitously race counter-clockwise, as if rolling back time to a period when appreciation for such musicals as “A Chorus Line” was universal.
That time is not now, and Mr. Showstopper himself, Steve Wynn, knows it. With this lineup of buoyant Broadway moments — and they are all intentionally uplifting and happy numbers — is attempting to reverse a Las Vegas entertainment trend he himself set by staging production spectaculars such as Siegfried & Roy at the Mirage and the first in a string of Cirque du Soleil shows, “Mystere” at Treasure Island.
Those shows opened just three years apart, next door to each other on the Strip. They were unique and fun and, frequently, mind-blowing. Siegfried & Roy were being presented in a custom-designed theater at the city’s true mega-resort, with their famous images looming down from the Strip’s largest marquee.
“Mystere” marked the first time a Cirque show was ever performed in a permanent venue and just this week celebrated its 10,000th performance at T.I. And, for that very success and to the dismay of entertainment traditionalists, those types of illusion- and acrobatics-filled shows have usurped audiences from productions showcasing traditional singing, dancing and musicianship.
Reversing that trend is not going to be easy, and Wynn knows it. He readily concedes that figuring out a consistently effective entertainment formula in his 45 years as a Las Vegas resort operator has been elusive.
“Showstoppers” is where Wynn throws his haymaker. This is not a groundbreaking show but rather one that returns to the concepts of pure entertainment. It is much a “reminder” show, resurrecting the artistry of brilliant live theater to anyone who has a memory of such.
And, most important, “Showstoppers” is personally pertinent to Wynn. He’s been an impassioned fan of musical theater since his days as a student at Penn (where he studied English lit) and was introduced to great Broadway musicals not so far away in New York.
The creative team Wynn has lined up to create “Showstoppers” is stacked, and so is its cast. Phil McKinley arrives from “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” and also directed the lavish Gatsby-themed 50th birthday party for Andrea Wynn that inspired Wynn to develop this show. Choreographer Marguerite Derricks originally conceived the dance design in Cirque’s “Zumanity” at New York-New York, and costume designer Suzy Benzinger’s credits include “Blue Jasmine,” “Whatever Works,” “Celebrity” and “Ghostbusters.”
Dave Loeb, the seemingly tireless head of the UNLV Jazz Studies program who has worked with a host of contemporary music stars and who also performs the music for Fox’s “Family Guy,” is the show’s music director. Spot check the players, and you’ll find those who have written charts for Celine Dion’s orchestra (hello, trombone ace Nathan Tanouye of Santa Fe & The Fat City Horns), performed for decades with Debbie Reynolds (give it up for pianist Joey Singer) and performed as concertmaster in the Las Vegas Philharmonic (take a bow, Dee Ann Letourneau).
Male leads Randal Keith, David Burnham and Andrew Ragone and their female counterparts Kerry O’Malley, Lindsay Roginski and Nicole Kaplan are all given time and space to star in “Showstoppers,” which runs at an impressive 90-minute velocity given all the set changes required in the volley of 18 songs from 10 Broadway musicals.
The material is culled from Rodgers & Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim and Kander & Ebb. If you have not heard these songs in their proper context, you’ve likely heard them somewhere in this life, either in a TV commercial or while walking through a mall. They are universally familiar. And a cast that is obviously well educated, experienced onstage and purely talented delivers them.
By the end of the auditions that led to the selection of the singers, Wynn was perplexed at whom to select, the quality and depth was so strong. They are all belters, filling out that casting-call requirement. Where “Showstoppers” fell into some unforeseen luck was finding Kaplan, who stepped in just over a month ago for Lauren Molina, who was let go from the cast during rehearsals.
The wife of “Jersey Boys” cast member Graham Fenton (who alternates with Travis Cloer in the Frankie Valli role) is a nifty interpreter of great songs. Her delightful and daffy spin through “A Little Brains, A Little Talent” from “Damn Yankees,” where the singer steps into the front row to flirt with audience members, is a crack-up.
The collection of singers is, simply, as good as it gets. A veteran of “Les Miserables,” “Phantom” and “Spamalot,” Keith unloads his thunderous voice in one of the show’s highlights, the dancers wearing corsets and applying makeup prepping while seated in front of a line of 11 mirrors in “Put On Your Sunday Clothes.”
Burnham leers and struts through “Razzle Dazzle” as the grinning Billy Flynn flanked by dueling staircases and surrounded by dancers in traditional Las Vegas showgirl costumes (including one covered in balloons that explode throughout the number). Ragone is the central leading man, the “stud” Wynn was looking for to play the show’s heartthrob, in “Willkommen” in the three sets of songs from “Cabaret.”
There are some showstoppers not in “Showstoppers,” as no numbers from more contemporary musicals are in the production. Nothing from “Cats,” “Les Miserables” or “Phantom,” for instance. The explanation is the numbers in “Showstoppers” were picked for entirely artistic reasons. Wynn, with McKinley’s direction, is looking for a happier set of songs that might not be related in a single musical but are cheeky and carry a great kinetic energy. After the premiere performance, Wynn remarked that Keith performed “The Impossible Dream” from “The Man of La Mancha” during rehearsals.
Anyone who has heard Keith sing (whether in “Phantom” at the Venetian or with The Phat Pack at Cabaret Jazz) can predict the result. Incredible. McKinley wanted that song in the show; Wynn countered with, “How do you follow that?” marking the rare moment when a performance for a topnotch, Broadway-style show was deemed too strong for the stage.
Wynn also has sidelined one of his favorite numbers, maybe the favorite, “The Country’s in the Very Best of Hands” from “Li’l Abner,” which was originally performed as the show’s encore. Preview audiences were thrown off by a second full-company number closing the show, as “One,” is, for now, the final showstopper in “Showstoppers.” But there will be numbers rotated in and out, as Wynn and McKinley work to keep the show fresh and enlivened.
There is room for debate on whether “Showstoppers” is as great as it can be. It makes sense to put a song from “Les Miserables” or “Phantom” into a show that has vocalists so familiar with that material. Or “Wicked,” even. When the idea of using a central star, a Hugh Jackman or Nathan Lane, was broached during the post-premiere news conference, McKinley winced and said to do so would require a full overhaul of the production.
“You would have to change the whole show,” said the director, who, like the entire cast, has already been working double-time to bring “Showstoppers” to fruition.
No, “Showstoppers” is going to be what it is, or at least a variation, today. If you appreciate great live performances in Las Vegas, this production needs to make it. There are production-based shows of varying quality already slugging it out in town that are carefully watching what happens at Encore — such productions as “Jubilee” and “Vegas! The Show” and even “Jersey Boys” are likely going to feel the impact, one way or another, of how “Showstoppers” fares at the box office.
Another turn-back-the-clock production, “Frank, The Man, The Music,” starring the dynamite Bob Anderson in full costume and makeup, opens at the Venetian Theater in January, with its own 32-piece orchestra led by Sinatra music director Vinnie Falcone.
There is genuine concern in the marketplace about the viability of all these traditional-styled shows as this new blowout production opens.
But maybe these shows can all prosper as “Showstoppers” beats the bushes for potential ticket-buyers who are either well-versed in Broadway productions or who are at least teachable. Wynn, again, is aware everyone who walks into Encore Theater might not be hip to “Damn Yankees,” so he narrates the show himself over the theater’s sound system, similar to how you once heard his voice leading the tour of the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art.
What’s “Cell Block Tango” from “Chicago” about, exactly? Showstopper Steve will tell us. He says he’s also bolstering the marketing campaign, by the way, to include video and photos of the elegantly conceived images onstage.
Wynn says it is possible “Showstoppers” will lead to the same derivative behavior we’ve always seen on the Strip. If one magician works, a half-dozen will follow. Cirque has continued to draw from its own success to become the city’s predominant production company. Mega-nightclubs, outdoor festivals, same thing.
Wynn says he doesn’t mind if others cop his idea. It would not be the first time, and this show, “Showstoppers,” is one he wants to work in a big way befitting a Broadway hit. This show is to serve as Steve Wynn’s artistic timepiece, and as the man himself says at the top of the show: Cue the overture.
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