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Steve Wynn out to ‘exhaust’ audiences with ‘Showstoppers’

Yes, his name is on “ShowStoppers.”

And yes, he monitors rehearsals and he narrates the finished product. But there’s a $5 million reason to listen when Steve Wynn says:

“What’s the point of doing something you don’t believe in yourself?”

That reason is “Funhouse,” the show that never opened at Wynn Las Vegas.

After years of hand-picking Broadway hits that either sounded good at the time (“Avenue Q”) or too quickly reached their leveling-off point (“Monty Python’s Spamalot”), the Wynn Resorts chairman decided to create a show from scratch in 2012.

He tasked Kenny Ortega, director of the “High School Musical” movies and Michael Jackson’s ill-fated “This Is It” concerts, with creating a production show that would “take advantage of every aspect of technology.”

“The idea was simple,” Wynn says. “We would do a show where things started out in a familiar way, but like life itself, nothing was ever quite the way it first appeared.”

Ortega and his team scouted the globe and spent months developing “Funhouse.” The labors yielded “20 minutes of stuff that kept the promise,” Wynn says. “But we couldn’t get to 80. No matter how much money we threw at it. We spent 5 or 6 million trying there, and wrote it off.”

Because “if I don’t go, ‘Wow,’ why would I expect anyone else to go ‘Wow’?” he says.

“Up or down, right or wrong, I’m all full of wows on ‘ShowStoppers.’ ”

The revue that opened Tuesday (with a grand opening Saturday) is another simple idea: Take the stand-out songs from Broadway musicals and put them all together.

The idea came out of a private show Wynn organized for wife Andrea’s 50th birthday party in March. Actress Rachel York’s version of “It’s Today” from “Mame” raised the curtain on an elaborate effort complete with Hugh Jackman.

“This is too good to let go,” Wynn remembers saying.

“ShowStoppers” still launches with “It’s Today,” and finds its way to “One” from “A Chorus Line.” Along the way, it visits blocks of songs from “Hello Dolly,” “Cabaret” and “Chicago.” A few of them, such as “Cell Block Tango” and “Willkommen,” are staged in a context approximating the original musical. Others are pure old-Hollywood “Razzle Dazzle,” with top hats, sequins and a 31-piece orchestra.

The full-cast numbers are spelled by front-of-curtain moments from the singing leads: Andrew Ragone and Randal Keith from The Venetian’s bygone version of “Phantom,” David Burnham, Kerry O’Malley, Nicole Kaplan and Lindsay Roginski, who is fresh from playing Roxie Hart in Broadway’s “Chicago” this year.

They are directed by Phil McKinley, who took over Broadway’s troubled “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” after the infamous firing of original director Julie Taymor.

Pastiche shows allowing Broadway to celebrate itself aren’t new. But the ones that make it to Broadway usually collect the work of a single composer (“Jerry’s Girls”) or director (“Fosse,” “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway”).

“ShowStoppers” stays on American shores — sorry, Andrew Lloyd Webber — but otherwise negotiated with a number of rights holders to compile a song list with one organizing principle: “I took all my favorites and put them together. It was very selfish and egocentric,” Wynn says with a laugh.

Some calls were easy. “Mame” and “Hello Dolly” composer Jerry Herman goes back with Wynn to the 1990s, when he was commissioned to write “Miss Spectacular,” an original musical that ultimately went unproduced at The Mirage.

To get “One” however, Wynn had to agree to let the number be choreographed by Baayork Lee, an original cast member of “A Chorus Line” and an executor of late director Michael Bennett’s estate.

No problem, as Lee told Wynn she was blown away by his 28 dancers.

Previews of “ShowStoppers” played as though it’s positioned for “Glee”-fueled tweeners and older audiences, deliberately skipping the 20-somethings who fuel Wynn’s lucrative nightclubs XS and Surrender. But he says that’s not necessarily the plan.

“I think it’s a question of opportunity,” he says. “Is there something about that age group that just doesn’t give a damn about this? Or is it they haven’t been exposed to it? And what happens if they are? Do they care?

“My thesis is there’s something inherent in these numbers that resonates with human emotion,” he says. “I don’t know any reason why the kids at XS wouldn’t give a damn about something as big and as beautiful as what we’ve put on the stage.”

Wynn’s faith dates back to his days as a University of Pennsylvania student, slipping off to New York in his Pontiac convertible. His college years from 1959 to 1963 correspond with what he calls “the golden age of Broadway.”

“I saw (Robert) Preston do ‘Music Man,’ I saw (Rex) Harrison do Higgins (in “My Fair Lady”). I saw Barbra Streisand do ‘Funny Girl.’ They were all playing at once. You could take your pick.

“All that’s sort of embedded in my DNA, I guess. We’ll see if it rubs off here.”

The “ShowStoppers” formula does come with inherent challenges.

First, if every song lives up to its definition, when do you let the audience rewind and catch its breathe?

Answer: You don’t. “I want to exhaust them if possible,” Wynn says. “I have no sympathy for the audience on that level.”

Second, if the songs aren’t entirely staged in context and costumes, can the noncelebrity leads sell them?

“If I had Sutton Foster, would that mean anything here? Or Kristin Chenoweth?” he asks in terms of the Broadway stars’ marquee value on the Strip.

Wynn says he has talked with stars including Richard Gere, Nathan Lane and Catherine Zeta-Jones about coming in for short runs as headliners. And it remains an option. But “I was more interested in getting the show settled. … If I drop Nathan Lane into a lousy show, it won’t make any difference.”

It is billed as “Steve Wynn’s ShowStoppers” after all.

“Listen this show, if it’s not successful? I’ll tell you one thing right now. The execution of the idea was flawless,” he says.

“If it doesn’t work, it’s my fault for not having the right idea. I’ve gotta take responsibility for this.”

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

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