John Katsilometes

The Kats Report: Checking in with ‘ShowStoppers’ director Philip Wm. McKinley

Smile makers: “What Mr. Wynn wanted was a very fun, joyful time.”

The name belies the spirit of the production. Steve Wynn’s ShowStoppers never ceases. Though stocked with showstoppers, no number has yet brought this show to a halt. Like the famous, circular dance segment in A Chorus Line, it seems built to spin indefinitely.

Cast members of 'ShowStoppers' perform 'One' from 'A Chorus Line.'

ShowStoppers turns a year old next month at Encore Theater, playing to happily buffeted and, as Wynn has said, profit-turning audiences. The production has been consistent in its high-caliber execution, even as a principal singer left the cast and has just been replaced. But through that reliability and durability is a flexible approach as designed by its creator (Wynn, the resort mogul who doubles as an ace show producer) and director (the revered Philip Wm. McKinley, who has held the helm of ShowStoppers since its launch).

The new singer is Rachel Tyler, stepping in for original cast member Kerry O’Malley. Tyler is the rare Strip performer who boasts credits from London’s West End, having performed in Smokey Joe’s Café, Miss Saigon and The Rocky Horror Show. In L.A. and New York City she has been a cast member in The Mystery of Edwin Drood and So Long 174th, and has also appeared on the Tony Awards telecast and BBC’s children’s musical series I Dream. She’s a wonderful singer and expert actor, selling the songs effectively while working with yearlong ShowStoppers vets Andrew Ragone, Randal Keith, David Burnham, Lindsay Roginski and Nicole Kaplan.

The ShowStoppers orchestra, under the direction of UNLV Jazz Studies Program Director Dave Loeb, remains a powerhouse: 30 members in all, everyone onstage. The hand-beaded costumes and tightly performed choreography continue to set the standard for Las Vegas productions. Aside from the addition of Tyler, the show is further freshened by three new numbers: Roginski’s fiery “Big Spender,” from Sweet Charity; Kaplan’s comically klutzy “Nobody Does it Like Me,” from Seesaw; and Tyler’s insistent “Don’t Rain on My Parade” from Funny Girl.

In a phone interview from New York, McKinley canvassed the past 11 months. Some revelations:

Philip William McKinley, director of “Steve Wynn’s Showstoppers” in Encore Theater at Wynn Las Vegas.

Philip William McKinley, director of “Steve Wynn’s Showstoppers” in Encore Theater at Wynn Las Vegas.

The singing auditions are not just about singing. “What I look for, to be honest, is when a person walks into a room, they instantly connect with me,” McKinley says. “In auditions, I often tell people, ‘The main thing is to walk into a room and entertain. Not audition, but entertain.’ … With the six singers, they all had some of that trait in them. They walk into the room and you say, ‘I want to be with this person. I want to spend some time with this person.’ In our show, you’re not playing a role. You’re playing yourself.”

There will be no darkness in ShowStoppers, ever. “We are always looking for material that is joyful, that is happy, that’s ebullient, that has a lot of energy. That is still very much the criteria for the show, and we want to keep the audience happy, smiling and laughing,” McKinley says. “We want to keep that. That is why we kind of steer away from what I call the Musical Dramas, and this was very much done on purpose, because what Mr. Wynn wanted was a very fun, joyful time.”

The songs used in ShowStoppers are old for a reason. “Why aren’t we using more contemporary songs? One is that because, obviously, it’s Steve Wynn’s ShowStoppers and these are the songs that he really loves,” McKinley says. “But there’s a certain sound to the show, with the orchestra, and when you get a little more contemporary—for instance, Little Shop [of Horrors] is contemporary, but it doesn’t have a symphonic sound, and we’ve got a 30-piece orchestra. So, some of the newer things that are sort of rock-based, like Hairspray, or have upbeat numbers, would not work with our orchestra. … But as the show progresses, we’re completely open to looking at newer material.”

Even so, shows currently running on Broadway are unlikely to be featured in ShowStoppers. “The newer things that are still running, getting rights would be much more difficult,” McKinley says.” They’re not necessarily going to give you those rights, and we have agreed with all of the right-holders that we do not reproduce any of the staging from the original shows.”

There are many numbers ready to be slotted into ShowStoppers pretty efficiently. “We have a certain number of songs that are in the trunk and someday may be used,” McKinley says. “It’s never stopped. We do select numbers that will fit our leads. I have to really know who is going to sing it, in my head, before we decide on a song to add.”

The company uniformly believes in passion over product. “Look, I’ll be really honest: In a show that I have a really long run in, oftentimes I don’t necessarily want to go back and see it all the time,” McKinley says. “To me, it’s kind of like living in the past. But I never get tired of seeing this show. Never. And that’s very rare for me. I credit that to Steve’s decision to make ShowStoppers fun, and I defy anybody to sit there and watch the show and not have a good time and be part of it.”

Steve Wynn's ShowStoppers Monday-Thursday, Saturday, 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; $100-$150. Encore Theater, 702-770-9966.

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