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‘ShowStoppers’ tips the fine line between ‘classic’ and ‘dated’

Blame Mel Brooks for my top hat phobia.

Ever since Brooks corrupted an impressionable teen with the “French Mistake” bit in “Blazing Saddles,” it’s been hard not to laugh at the mere sight of chorus boys. No matter how dated or even homophobic the “stick out your tush” scene is by today’s standards (the whole movie really couldn’t be made today), a young mind was irreparably warped.

And frankly, it hasn’t been much of an issue in all the years since. Really only when I’m watching “Jubilee!” And now, Steve Wynn’s “ShowStoppers.” There’s a thin line between “classic” and “old,” but the new salute to Broadway’s big numbers at Wynn Las Vegas just seems dated.

That’s partly because the blockbuster numbers, handpicked by the casino chairman who put his name above the title, all fall between 1943 (“I Cain’t Say No” from “Oklahoma,” the first modern musical) and 1975, which brought us both “Chicago” and “A Chorus Line.”

But I think the bigger culprit is the costumes, which undermine a lot of good things happening onstage.

Yes, a display of tuxedos and top hats is reasonable, even period-appropriate, if you’re doing “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” from “Hello, Dolly!” Even if the hats are colored gold, I’ll work with ’em on that.

It gets harder not to snicker when Andrew Ragone — whom locals remember as Raoul in The Venetian “Phantom” — is trying to be the decadent, slightly sinister “Cabaret” emcee in a stripy getup that looks more like Batman’s foe the Joker, complete with sequined purple lapels.

And when David Burnham and Nicole Kaplan come out to do the “Money” duet, the derby hat and clown makeup are so atrociously of the ’70s-TV variety show era that we are completely distracted from their singing.

And if you’re gonna give ’em the ol’ “Razzle Dazzle” from “Chicago,” it might not be the dazzle you expect when Ragone has to do it in a spangly pink jacket and red top hat.

If all this sounds like a fixation on the wardrobe credited to Suzy Benzinger, consider the larger context. Most Broadway revivals use the opportunity to reinterpret a musical with modern tastes in costumes and production design. “ShowStoppers” goes the other direction, pushing the overall tone back to the “Ziegfeld Follies” era.

It makes sense that the best moments are those which play more like visits to the actual musicals. The “Damn Yankees” baseball team somehow managed to dodge the sequins for “The Game,” which features a drop-down locker room set.

And “Cell Block Tango” from “Chicago” is this revue’s one actual showstopper, preserving the original number’s intent while still letting the gallery of femme fatales led by Lindsay Roginski (who did the musical on Broadway) strut their stuff with an added dose of Vegas sexy.

Choosing “The Game” instead of the “Damn Yankees” standard “Heart,” or having Kaplan do “A Little Brains, a Little Talent” instead of “Whatever Lola Wants,” could mean Steve Wynn, who conceived the show and bankrolls it, simply likes those songs better. Or that the lesser-known numbers are a means to break up a show that by its very format calls for one big song after another.

Either way it works. So does the front-of-curtain duet by booming-voiced Randal Keith (late of “The Phat Pack”) and Kerry O’Malley on “Anything You Can Do.” It comes early enough to address the issue of why we should care about singing leads who are not fully in character, but not celebrities in their own right.

And while it may not be the best way to solve either problem, “ShowStoppers” clocked at just over an hour on one of its final nights before Saturday’s grand opening. No real danger of getting burned out there.

It’s a joy to watch a belter such as O’Malley tee up “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” — another number which benefits from clutter-free isolation — and a downright extravagance to see a 31-piece orchestra onstage. By the time they get to “One” from “A Chorus Line,” you accept not only the silver tuxes and top hats, but “ShowStoppers” as a gift to the underserved, retirement-age folks who still visit Las Vegas but are now ignored in its collective marketing.

With Wynn fully vested here, there’s no reason to believe “ShowStoppers” couldn’t be around a long time. Particularly if it were to add another 15 minutes worth of numbers that acknowledge some of what’s happened on Broadway since 1975. And maybe use that time to give the top hats and sequins a rest.

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.

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