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November 1, 2014

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With ‘Funhouse’ and Billy Joel, Steve Wynn has taken a capital approach

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Denise Truscello/WireImage/DeniseTruscello.net

Andrea and Steve Wynn at the grand opening of Andrea’s at the Encore on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013.

Andrea's Grand Opening at Encore

Stacy Keibler, Maria Menounos and Kate Upton attend the grand opening of Andrea's at the Encore on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013. Launch slideshow »

I keep hearing about how resorts aren’t putting money behind entertainment or how show producers are shaving their investments (not a euphemism) at the expense of quality.

But at least one resort mogul with a high standard for what he puts on his stages is still willing to pony up the spondulicks: Steve Wynn.

Wynn is backing an adventurous project called “Funhouse,” which is best described as a reality-bending variety show that he is writing with director Kenny Ortega (“High School Musical,” Michael Jackson’s “This Is It”) and Bob Martin, once of “Second City” who won a Tony Award with Don McKellar for Best Book for “The Drowsy Chaperone” (Martin also was nominated for a Tony for his portrayal of the Man in the Chair in that musical).

The news that “Funhouse” was an idea at all was first reported in November by my colleague and tag-team partner Robin Leach. The cast is going to be populated with as many as 20 dancers, and they are to be topnotch dancers, as Wynn promises. But the man with his name atop the resort is keeping further details under his vest, for now.

Blithely, I asked Wynn last week at the opening of Andrea’s in the Encore to describe “Funhouse.”

“The key to understanding life is nothing is as it appears to be,” he said cryptically while pivoting to greet well-wishers in what I call the Wynn Vortex. This is the great mass of people, to a person influential or famous by some measure, who gather around Steve and Andrea Wynn at such public events. Over here is Larry Ruvo, over there is Rick Harrison of “Pawn Stars.”

Wynn was not finished.

“With ‘Funhouse,’ we decided we could find a new vernacular, a new show,” said Wynn, who brought Siegfried & Roy to the Mirage and was the first to stage a Cirque du Soleil show on the Strip. “This is not the ‘Folies.’ This is not Cirque or a restatement of anything else. This is something that involves modern technology and the understanding of the movement of human beings coupled with technology and wit.”

If it sounds a little, um, pricey, it is. Wynn is holding a workshop in March to review the progress of the creative team. Millions ride on that performance.

“I told them to take the time we need, and we started last spring to explore and flesh out these ideas,” he said. “I said, ‘Show me what we have in mind, or at least your version of it,' and I’ll decide then whether to green-light the rest of the capital, which is probably another $40 to $50 million.”

And if it doesn’t pass the audition?

“Then we stop,” Wynn said. “… But it’s time for a new version of really great theater spectacle in Las Vegas with wit, with characters.”

That “wit” reference, a Wynn favorite, might sound familiar to anyone who charts the resort trailblazer’s comments regarding live entertainment at his hotels. He said the same thing about “Monty Python’s Spamalot” at Encore Theater just prior to its opening in March 2007. In one of the more regretful outcomes on the Strip in recent years, “Spamalot” performed far better wit-wise than money-wise before being swept away to make room for Danny Gans after an 18-month run.

Wynn also explained his Grand Vision behind Billy Joel’s appearance at Encore Theater on New Year’s Eve weekend.

“I’ve been begging him to work for me for a year and a half, maybe two years,” Wynn said. “He finally did it over New Year’s, on Friday night, and I said, ‘If you come and do this, I’ll overpay you. See how you like it. See how it feels.’ ”

To quote (almost verbatim) another legendary artist, how did it feel?

“Hah! I went to sound check, and I was hovering, just hovering, around him,” Wynn said. “He’s very laid-back, and I don’t know what Billy’s mindset is like at this point in his life. He made a crack to me, ‘Steve, I’m not so crazy about the pop music scene at this stage of my life.’

“He’s a classically trained guy, and he’s doing piano work that’s more classical.”

So Joel was “overpaid” for just that one night. For some artists, this message still holds true: I don’t care too much for money …

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

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