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A ‘proponent of spectacle,’ director Philip William McKinley goes organic in ‘Showstoppers’

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Denise Truscello / WireImage / DeniseTruscello.net

Director Philip William McKinley, Andrea Wynn, Steve Wynn and choreographer Marguerite Derricks attend the press conference for “Steve Wynn’s Showstoppers” in Encore Theater on Saturday, Dec. 20, 2014, in Wynn Las Vegas.

‘Steve Wynn’s Showstoppers’ Press Conference

Director Philip William McKinley, Andrea Wynn, Steve Wynn and choreographer Marguerite Derricks attend the press conference for “Steve Wynn’s Showstoppers” in Encore Theater on Saturday, Dec. 20, 2014, in Wynn Las Vegas. Launch slideshow »
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“Steve Wynn’s Showstoppers” at Encore Theater in Wynn Las Vegas.

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“Steve Wynn’s Showstoppers” at Encore Theater in Wynn Las Vegas.

Philip William McKinley might not possess the type of “Spidey sense” that causes Peter Parker to tingle when discord is in the offing. But McKinley has stage sense, knowing what is likely to work, and not, in a live theater setting. He was drawn to the tangled web of “Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark,” replacing Julie Taymor in 2011 until the show closed in January 2013.

Today, McKinley is Steve Wynn’s artistic deputy as the director of “Steve Wynn’s Showstoppers” at Wynn’s Encore Theater. The show opened in December and has fulfilled its promise to resurrect and unveil many classic Broadway musical numbers.

The vast majority of audience members who file out of Encore Theater say that they would recommend the show to their family and friends, and the recommendation here, too, is to check out this talent-laden effort. “Showstoppers” is what is known as a “generous” show, flaunting Wynn’s investment in that talent and also in the show’s grandiose staging and elegant costumes.

The show is “set,” for the moment, but there are numbers always in circulation. McKinley is at the wheel, conferring with Wynn continually on how to move the show forward. He recently spoke of the status of “Showstoppers,” its place in the Las Vegas entertainment culture and his own show-stopping resume:

As the director, what do you want to people to know about “Showstoppers” now that the show has been up and running for a while?

I think it is a show that I defy anyone to leave without feeling joyful and having a good time. What I like the most about it is that it’s just talent, the spectacle comes out of the talent that’s onstage, from the singers, the dancers, to the orchestra itself, and I like the fact that there’s something in town now that that’s what it’s based on. And I love the Cirque shows, I love “Ka,” “O.” And “Le Reve,” which is one of my favorites and I try to see every time I’m here.

Even Broadway doesn’t look as much like traditional Broadway, right? In New York, where you have spent so much of your career, there are some really production-heavy shows, right?

New York is becoming spectacle, yes. New York is about when you do “Mary Poppins” and the house that comes all the way downstage and she’s flying over me, and you know “Spider-Man” was a huge spectacle.

You’re part of that whole spectacle culture.

(Laughs) Doing things like “Ben Hur” in the 02 Arena, of doing a real chariot race. I’m a proponent of spectacle.

I know, firsthand, that the response from the audience leaving “Showstoppers” has been very positive. People feel good when they leave this show.

I was at the show the other night with two ladies sitting next to me, probably in their 40s or early 50s. At the end of the show, they said, “My gosh, this is the best thing we’ve seen. We’re from New York, and we don’t even get this kind of talent on Broadway.” Well, that’s heaven to hear that. And we’re very fortunate.

You’re fortunate in all kinds of ways, right? The resources and venue, the talent assembled, is rare, isn’t it?

You look at (choreographer) Marguerite Derricks. We had been trying to work with each other for eight years, and I had called Marguerite for other projects but our schedules just never meshed. So we didn’t know each other but we knew of each other’s work and thought this would be great.

What we discovered, really, in the audition process was that she and I are both very old school. Dancers don’t come to rehearsal in saggy sportswear and tennis shoes. You come in looking like a dancer. The girls come in with full makeup and everything’s done. That’s old school, and the show is full of old-school ideas.

And you have a deep history in Las Vegas, which a lot of audience members might not be aware of when they walk into a performance of “Showstoppers.”

Yes, I worked with Ronnie Lewis at the Dunes and I worked with Frederick Apcar (“Casino de Paris” and “Viva Les Girls” at the Dunes) and Donn Arden (“Jubilee” at Bally’s). That’s where I got my background. Those were the first shows I did.

How did those shows shape how you direct today?

It’s where I learned that you should be at rehearsal on time, warmed up and you’re ready to go. I find that a lot of people now, they feel like one of their main goals is to make sure everything’s fun. And we have to have fun and we have to become a family. But it’s like I’m going, “No, the fun comes out of the joy of doing good work.”

And you worked for a long time with Kenneth Feld of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. You still apply what you learned from him to your work today?

I had 13 years with Kenneth. I love a producer who has a vision, who has a passion. Passion is very important to me because I feel there’s a whole generation that doesn’t quite understand what passion is. I do master classes at several colleges, and one of the questions I ask students is, “What’s your passion?” And I am absolutely dumbfounded when many of them can’t tell you. They go, “What do you mean?” What is the thing you have to do that would do if you never got paid that you have to do?

The collective passion is obvious in the show, and it’s interesting at how the show is both an educational and entertainment experience. We have Steve Wynn’s voiceover describing a lot of the number. Why is that necessary?

It’s interesting because you almost have to tell them this is how you watch it. This is what it is. We’re not creating any kind of new invention, and we’re not saying that we’re the next revolution or evolution of theater. We’re just for entertainment. I think people come to Las Vegas to have a good time. They want to be joyful and laugh, and I think that’s exactly what Steve was after.

That’s what it is. That’s the show. Everything we select whether (Wynn entertainment director) Rick Gray brings it up or I bring it up or Steve brings it up, the mood of the piece has to be about joy, it has to be about happy. It has to be about having a good time.

Steve Wynn has tried to stage versions of great Broadway-style musicals before. “Avenue Q” was great. “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” with (“Showstoppers” principal singer) Randal Keith, was great. But those shows didn’t work, twice over. And here he comes again with a greatest-hits package. Why is this going to work when the other two didn’t?

“Showstoppers” is completely and totally different. Audiences, I believe, and this is strictly my view on it, and I was here for eight years, I worked in Las Vegas for eight years back in the ’70s, you come to Las Vegas to see what you can’t see on Broadway. You don’t go to Broadway to see Las Vegas. You come to Las Vegas to see Las Vegas. This show is Las Vegas. The elegance, the costuming. Some people might look at it and go, “It’s a little over the top.” Yeah, that’s Las Vegas.

And I think what happened with shows like “Avenue Q” and “Spamalot” is that they weren’t bad shows. It’s just that people don’t want to sit and see a story. I don’t want to have to concentrate on the dialogue; I don’t want to follow a story. I want a good time. Just sing and dance for me. Just have a great time. I think that was the mistake if there was a mistake. If they want to see that, they see that in their own hometowns. They can see “Spamalot” the tour if they’re in Cincinnati. They can see it in Chicago.

How do you keep the arc and the pace of the show in any sensible order when you have so many unlike numbers?

How does it work? Because the theme remains the same. It’s still rooted in the joy of the human soul. Whether it’s dancers out there having this joyful moment of dancing or whether it’s a singer.

You keep the happiness calibrated all the way through. There’s not a moment in the show, nor will there be a moment in the show, where everything comes down and there’s a dark moment?

There will not be a dark moment. There may be a reflective moment, a quiet moment, but the quietness is rooted in the containment of the joy that wants to get out, and then it explodes. It’s coming. And that is what I had to get into my head. Why is he selecting these songs? God knows there were lots of things on the table. “Les Miz” was on the table and “Phantom” was on the table.

Exactly. I mean, there’s nothing that’s not on the table for this type of production. Everything is available to you, right? No restrictions on content?

Right. Well, there is some restriction, to be honest, with Disney. We would never — how do you do Disney? You can’t get the rights. They hold on to those things very tightly. You’d think “Be Our Guest” and you could get the rights to do it as a one-off, but it would be very difficult.

I think now it might be easier because in the beginning when we were going to people and asking them for rights, they didn’t know what it was. They wanted to know what this show was going to be. There was nothing they could look to and say it was “this.” Basically, Steve had never put his name on anything, so you couldn’t say, “Oh, it’s Franco Dragone.” There was no brand.

There is a brand now.

Yes, and the word is out that this is a beautifully produced, quality, elegant show. It’s everything that Las Vegas is and what Mr. Wynn has done in developing Las Vegas. Las Vegas, at one point, was considered this kind of sin-filled, dark, seedy kind of thing. Well, it’s not anymore.

We wanted everything in this production to reflect the Wynn sensibility and the elegance of Wynn. That affected costumes, that affected set design. People look at it, and it’s lavish and it’s a reflection of who we are.

A reflection of your passion?

A reflection of our passion, absolutely.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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