Center stage: Salzburg Whitsun Festival

 25/05 14:38 CET
Center stage: Salzburg Whitsun Festival

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‘West Side Story’

Broadway comes to Salzburg

Philip William McKinley is known as a director of large-scale shows. The musical spectacular ‘‘ShowStoppers’’ at Steve Wynn’s Encore resort in Las Vegas is his latest, and he took over ‘‘Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,’’ replacing Julie Taymor, in 2011 until the show closed in January 2014. But, as Cecilia Bartoli, the artistic director of the Salzburg Whitsun Festival, points out, he is also a classically trained pianist and opera singer, having performed at the New York City Opera in the 1980s when it was run by Beverly Sills.

So he should feel at home in the huge space of the Felsenreitschule — built in 1693 as a summer riding school for the prince-archbishops of Salzburg and used by the Salzburg Festival as a theater since 1926 — where a new production of ‘‘West Side Story’’ will run May 13 and 15, and Aug. 20-29.

‘‘He has done amazing things in unusual spaces,’’ says Bartoli, ‘‘such as ‘Ben Hur Live,’’’ which premiered in 2009 at the O2 Arena in London. Much of the core creative team for that show — the choreographer Liam Steel, the lighting designer Patrick Woodroffe and the costume designer Ann Hould-Ward — are also developing ‘‘West Side Story’’ with McKinley. The stage designer, George Tsypin, who was the artistic director and production designer for the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia in 2014, has had a relationship with the festival for more than 20 years.

‘‘They are all equally versatile in opera, theater, rock concerts and mass shows all over the world,’’ says Bartoli. But she also points out that the focus is not only on the spectacle of the show: ‘‘‘West Side Story’ occupies its own territory between opera, operetta and musical.’’

Like ‘‘Candide,’’ which Leonard Bernstein was composing at the same time, the show not only ‘‘incorporates light music and jazz, but also classical and even contemporary music,’’ says Bartoli. ‘‘Or, as Bernstein said, the chief problem is to tread the fine line between opera and Broadway, between realism and poetry, ballet and abstract and representational dancing.’’ And ‘‘West Side Story’’ has the additional element of Latin music in the mix (it was also a hit, unlike ‘‘Candide’’).

The direction and choreography were by Jerome Robbins, and his inspiration guides McKinley and Steel in their conception of the new production, along with the show’s themes, which were also innovative for Broadway. Although Robbins and Bernstein — along with the third collaborator, the playwright and director Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book — based the story on Shakespeare’s ‘‘Romeo and Juliet,’’ they brought the story into contemporary New York of the 1950s.

Philip William McKinley, director of the Whitsun Festival’s ‘‘West Side Story’’
Credit: Glenn Grayson

That aspect of the work will be important for McKinley’s staging. ‘‘At the time,’’ he says, ‘‘in ’57, it was very violent and gritty, and I’ll want to bring that aspect to the forefront of our production. It’s not a light musical comedy — it’s a dramatic piece, which is why it works so well in an opera house. I think we deal with more dramatic pieces in an opera house — pieces that are bigger emotionally.’’

The director notes that the story of rival clans and star-crossed lovers bears many interpretations — he notes a modern-day ‘‘particularly gothic’’ production recently by the Komische Oper Berlin and a 1998-99 production in Japan by the Takarazuka Revue, an all-female troupe — but he is keeping the original rivalry between the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks.

Of the show’s creators, he says it’s not a question of ‘‘copying’’ their staging, but rather looking into the reasons for the choices they made: ‘‘You find out why they did what they did. What was their approach? What was their sensibility? Then you take that into the contemporary world. What will create that sensibility for today’s audience?’’

Ethnic tensions and xenophobia are problems that resonate in contemporary society, he adds. He notes that he has been struck by the particularly divisive atmosphere in the United States during the presidential campaign. ‘‘Those themes are all occurring again in our society,’’ he says. Europe, too, has seen similar reactions to its Muslim population, especially after the recent influx of asylum seekers and other migrants from the Middle East.

The ‘‘grittiness and animosity’’ of the divide that Tony and Maria are trying to bridge calls for a very physical approach. ‘‘That’s one reason why I was so delighted that Liam Steel is the choreographer,’’ he says. ‘‘His choreography comes out of a very athletic sensibility.’’

Gustavo Dudamel will conduct the Simón Bolívar Symphony
Credit: Richard Reinsdorf

He is enthusiastic about the choice of Gustavo Dudamel, who will conduct the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. ‘‘You’re looking at a gentleman who mirrors the passion, intensity and vitality that Bernstein had,’’ he says. ‘‘Gustavo has this unbridled passion and spirit that so matches this music. He feels it. The Latin part of it is his home, his inner soul.’’

Bartoli was insistent on having a proper orchestra, ‘‘rather than 10 to 12 players and some synthesizers, as has become the rule for touring productions,’’ she says. Dudamel and the orchestra he leads were an obvious choice, she adds.

The 35-year-old conductor is also a good fit for the themes of the story McKinley highlights. He, and the Simón Bolívar orchestra, are products of Venezuela’s El Sistema, which offers free music education to disadvantaged young people. Dudamel consistently makes the point that music is a force for positive social change. Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where he has been artistic director since 2009, also have a Sistema-inspired program, and in February Dudamel took the Youth Orchestra LA to the Super Bowl to perform with Beyoncé, Bruno Mars and Coldplay at halftime.

McKinley is ‘‘excited and honored’’ to be part of this show, and he credits Bartoli’s vision and willingness to take artistic risks. ‘‘It’s terrific to find someone who is that open and adventurous,’’ he says. ‘‘She’s absolutely fearless. I think that’s one reason she’s so brilliant. I respect her ability to fling open doors to new ideas.’’

‘‘‘West Side Story’’ occupies its own territory between opera, operetta and musical’

A new production of ‘‘West Side Story,’’ starring Cecilia Bartoli as Maria, is the centerpiece of this year’s Whitsun Festival
Credit: Silvia Lelli


A fresh approach to landmark dance

Along with its dark, urban atmosphere and themes, contemporary social commentary and artful music, the 1957 Broadway musical ‘‘West Side Story’’ was notable for its use of dance as a theatrical and storytelling element. It was Jerome Robbins who enlisted the composer Leonard Bernstein and the writer Arthur Laurents into developing the show. Robbins was credited for its conception and created its choreography, for which he won a Tony Award (he also shared the best-director Academy Award for the 1961 film version, which won best picture and nine other Oscars).

How much does Robbins’s work influence a choreographer working on a new production, as is Liam Steel, the choreographer for the Salzburg Whitsun Festival’s show? ‘‘You can’t get away from it,’’ he says. ‘‘That’s a saving thing, but it’s also what you’re battling against all the time. For years and years, you just did Jerome Robbins’s original staging. When you can do fresh choreography, you think, that’s fantastic, the freedom! But the second thought is, how do you reinvent the wheel? The only thing you can possibly do is make it your own.’’

In order to do that, he thought about how he saw the setting and who the characters were: rival gangs. Robbins’s jazz-ballet form was about upward movement — balletic leaps, for example. Steel found that odd, looking at what men actually do when they’re preparing to fight. ‘‘If you look at boxers or capoeiristas, the first thing they do is drop their weight, which is the opposite of what Jerome Robbins did. So that gave me a choreographic starting point for a fresh approach. Lowering the center of gravity, using the floor much more, gives it a masculine, testosterone-fueled, fighting feel.’’

He is also taking account of the very large space in which the show will be staged — the Felsenreitschule, a former riding school. ‘‘It’s like a football pitch,’’ says Steel. ‘‘That sets parameters as well.’’

The director, Philip William McKinley, is keeping the original setting of the story, which was contemporary in 1957, but which makes ‘‘West Side Story’’ a period piece nearly 60 years later. ‘‘It is set in the ’50s,’’ says Steel, ‘‘but I’m not a slave to that in terms of the style of the period. But for things like the ‘Mambo,’ I will give a strong nod to it. You’re using dance and movement to express things that aren’t about the period — it’s about expressing emotions and communicating through that movement.’’

McKinley agrees. ‘‘It’s not about doing the steps,’’ he says. ‘‘It’s what you’re saying with the choreography. The characters tell their story through their movement. When they dance, you see the inner monologue happening. A movement is not just a movement, it is telling you an inner story. That’s why I like to work with Liam so much — it’s not just choreography, there’s a story that’s happening.’’

That means that the dancers need also to be good actors — and singers as well. ‘‘There’s not a musical that requires triple-threat performers more than this show,’’ Steel says. ‘‘You cannot get away with people who can’t dance, and they need to be able to sing, and they need to be good actors. And I didn’t want twirly dancers onstage — I wanted men who looked like men and moved like men. And women who looked like women and moved like women.’’

Finding those triple-threat performers meant a wide-ranging casting process, with calls going out to the contemporary dance world around Europe and auditions held in Salzburg, Berlin and London. ‘‘I was seeing 30 people at a time every half hour,’’ he says. ‘‘I saw over 200 people in London, and that was on a short list.’’

The choreographer Liam Steel, Whitsun choreographer
Credit: Anne Zeuner / SF

Cecilia Bartoli

‘I love to break down boundaries’

Cecilia Bartoli’s fifth season as artistic director and star of the Salzburg Whitsun Festival is one of continuity and innovation. Her choices of roles since 2012 — Cleopatra in Handel’s ‘‘Giulio Cesare in Egitto,’’ Bellini’s Druid priestess ‘‘Norma,’’ Rossini’s ‘‘La Cenerentola’’ and the Euripidean priestess in Gluck’s ‘‘Iphigénie en Tauride’’ — have also been thematic programming choices. This year’s program, however, differs in that the main production — a new one of ‘‘West Side Story’’ — is the first to come from Broadway rather than 18th- and 19th-century European opera houses.

‘‘As the first woman ever in this position,’’ says Bartoli, ‘‘I am, of course, interested in picking out themes that are related to women — and since, historically, most female subjects in art were treated by men, the result is often an interesting image of women refracted through male thought. You might say you often learn more about men and their attitudes than about women.’’

Her aim is to explore the themes through a variety of art forms. ‘‘We have created symphony and chamber music concerts, newly staged opera productions, plays, exhibitions, films, dinners and a collaboration with the legendary Salzburg Marionette Theater,’’ she says. ‘‘Whitsun in Salzburg certainly requires some church music, and I am most delighted to have brought ballet back to the Salzburg Festival — wonderful companies from the Mariinsky, from Hamburg and Stuttgart.’’

This year, in commemoration of Shakespeare’s death 400 years ago, the festival will take ‘‘Romeo and Juliet’’ as its through line. In addition to ‘‘West Side Story,’’ which translated Shakespeare’s tragedy to 20th-century New York, the tale of doomed lovers will be told through concerts, ballet, theater and cinema.

The Broadway classic — a collaboration by its composer, Leonard Bernstein, and choreographer, Jerome Robbins, with a book by Arthur Laurents and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim — reflects this mix of disciplines. ‘‘I love the unexpected and to break down boundaries,’’ she says. The work, she explains, ‘‘encompasses my idea of the festival perfectly — something made up of theater, opera, dance and literature, lightness and profundity in form, feeling and subject matter. And, of course, the social and political questions it raises have become so incredibly topical again.’’There is also her attraction to the role of Maria. ‘‘Like most people,’’ she says, ‘‘I have known the songs from ‘West Side Story’ since my adolescence, probably even better than some operas. And I still like to think of myself as the simple, warm-hearted, dreamy girl from next door, which for me makes Maria into an absolute dream role.’’

To sing Tony opposite Bartoli, ‘‘we decided to cast an opera singer,’’ she says, the American tenor Norman Reinhardt, who will also be singing Nemorino in Donizetti’s ‘‘L’elisir d’amore’’ at the Hamburg State Opera in June. Karen Olivo (Anita) and George Akram (Bernardo) come from Laurents’s 2009 revival of ‘‘West Side Story,’’ for which Olivo won a Tony. Dan Burton plays Riff.

Of her approach to singing Maria, Bartoli says: ‘‘Bernstein himself described Maria’s voice as girlish and lyrical in the high, then again just as dark and mature in the low register. I will need to try to find this balance, and to make it sound simple and natural, straight from the heart! This requires good technique with fine and real voice control, but it should still seem natural and remain intelligible, with colors and shades of emotion.

‘‘I will try my best to match Leonard Bernstein’s dream, following his words: ‘There is an ideal way of hearing ‘‘One Hand, One Heart,’’’ for example. I’ve always kept in the back of my mind a feeling that maybe someday I could hear that song sung the way I’ve always wanted it to be sung, which is quite slow, with real operatic voice control and quality.’’

Her five-year term as artistic director has been renewed until 2021, and she looks to build on the foundation of her first mandate. ‘‘The audience figures and the economic success have risen sharply,’’ she notes. ‘‘We will continue to collaborate with international stars while integrating local forces as well. But what I am most proud of is that over the five years we have established a feeling of continuity and a team spirit with all those working at the festival, something that is vital in order to create a product of excellence within an extremely short and intense period of time.’’

‘Like many people, I have known the songs of ‘‘West Side Story’’ since my adolescence’

Cecilia Bartoli, the Salzburg Whitsun Festival’s artistic director
Credit: ROLEX / Hugo Glendinning


As beautiful inside and she is on the out!  There is a reason she is among the top 10 in the world…she is generous and loving to everyone.  A very rare jewel!  Te adoro Cecilia!


Provided by: © Salzburger Festspiele / Silvia Lelli

A picture from the Dream Ballet choreographed by my friend and colleague Liam Steel who is brilliant.  His choreography added an exciting and dynamic dimension to the production that is rarely seen on a musical stage.  Special thanks to all the JETS & SHARKS who went through a rigorous rehearsal schedule of only four weeks to create the dances that have audiences standing and screaming with joy that has not been seen at the festival until now.


“West Side Story” pics from Salzburg press…enjoy!!

America 1

Provided by: © Salzburger Festspiele / Silvia Lelli

WSS #4

Provided by: © Salzburger Festspiele / Silvia Lelli

WSS #3

Provided by: © Salzburger Festspiele / Silvia Lelli

WSS #2

Provided by: © Salzburger Festspiele / Silvia Lelli

WSS #1

Provided by: © Salzburger Festspiele / Silvia Lelli

OPENING of West Side Story Salzburg with Cecilia Bartoli

Maria I

Provided by: © Salzburger Festspiele / Silvia Lelli

A brilliant opening last night in Salzburg with “West Side Stor.”  starring Cecilia Bartoli and conducted by Gustavo Dudamel with the Simon Boliva Orchestra.  A once in a lifetime experience.

The audience was on their feet at the end of the show which I’ve  been told is extremely unusual for the premier audience.

A very nice review in the Salzburg paper today.  Looking forward to returning in August for the summer festival.

New Review of Showstoppers with “new” cast member Rachel Tyler


In the world of Broadway musicals, there’s a term to describe a song that stands out above the rest of the selections. A song or a performance that is so over the top that it’s known as a showstopper. Steve Wynn has brought a show to Las Vegas that is simply known as ShowStoppers because every song and every performance is a pinnacle of magical interpretation.

I had the pleasure of seeing this magnificent show on my last trip to Las Vegas and for those of you that read that first blog, you know how much I loved it, but I have to say, this time around, it was even better than I remembered. From the first sweet musical note to the final curtain and exit music, I was enthralled, enchanted and completely entertained. There is no other show that compares to this extravagant production that encompasses the best of the best. Both in musical selection and in the talented performers that do what they do so extraordinarily well.

When I first saw this show, I absolutely raved about the lead female cast members and I have to tell you that I’m in awe of the three gorgeous and talented women that grace the Encore theatre six nights a week. One of the leading ladies left the show recently and I knew that Kerry O’Malley was irreplaceable. I was convinced that no matter how good the new female lead was, she wouldn’t be able to touch the performance of Ms. O’Malley.

Well, I was wrong. Rachel Tyler is a beauty that hails from the United Kingdom and has a resume that includes national tours with Mamma Mia, Grease, Fame and The Rocky Horror Show. Ms. Tyler was every bit as good as her predecessor, while still bringing something new and vibrant to the stage. Her voice is unbelievably strong and her stage presence was so powerful that from her first song, she had touched my heart and brought my emotions right to the surface. By the last song, I had tears running down my face and goose bumps on my arms. She’s believable, she’s natural and above all else, she’s definitely a star.


Joined by the two other female leads, Lindsay Roginski and Nicole Kaplan Fenton, she easily could fill the shoes of any great Broadway performer. The three of them together on one stage, makes this show worthy of the Antoinette Perry Award for Excellence, informally known as the Tony Award. I can’t say enough about these three stand out performers, but I will say that they make me wish I had just a smidgen of their talent.


The biggest difference between this show and the last one I saw was how impressed I was this time by the male leads. Randal Keith, David Burnham and Andrew Ragone were at the top of their game with this particular performance and I was more impressed than ever with their vocal range, powerhouse voices and stellar performances. Randal Keith was born to perform and he easily has one of the best voices out there. David Burnham and Andrew Ragone bring a masculinity to stage that rounds out the sweetness of the ladies.


Every song in this amazing show quickly becomes a favorite with hits from shows like, Cabaret, Chorus Line and Chicago. Not only was I mesmerized by the lead vocalists, but I was also blown away by the cast of fabulous dancers. All of them are extremely talented and lend so much to this production. There were three stand outs for not only their fancy footwork, but by their shining personalities. Natacha Bachour is a gorgeous creature that stood out in every thing she did. Stefan Raulston is the dance captain and with good reason. His smile, his easy moves and his connection with the audience makes him someone to watch. However, the dancer that caught my attention and made me want to know more about who she is and where she comes from is, Genise Ruidiaz. This young lady hails from Miami, Florida and throughout each and every performance, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by her beauty, her acting and her flawless dancing.


Every performance and every song from ShowStoppers is simply the best. I would like to tell you about all my favorite moments, like the jailhouse scene from Chicago that has world class pizzazz with lovely leading lady, Lindsay Roginski. Then another favorite was Nicole Kaplan Fenton singing alongside David Burnham in Money Money or when she plays the adorable Lola in A Little Brains, A Little Talent. This petite, uber talented lady could easily be mistaken for Kristen Chenoweth except she brings her own perfectly suited personality to life when she performs each of her fantastic numbers. I would also like to tell you how magical and powerful the newest cast member, Rachel Tyler was when she sang, Don’t Rain On My Parade from Funny Girl. I thought I had seen a great show, I thought I had witnessed polished talent, I thought the show was as good as a show could be, until Ms. Tyler came out and nailed this classic number from Funny Girl. It doesn’t get better than that. Ms. Streisand should be jealous.

If you have never seen a Broadway musical, or if you have seen them all, you will still want to go see Steve Wynn’s ShowStoppers. It is the epitome of the greatest songs from the all-time best Broadway shows. Even if you don’t think you like Broadway, you will still be pleasantly surprised and leave the theatre feeling something you didn’t expect to feel. There is nothing like live musical theatre and with this show featuring a thirty-four piece orchestra conducted by Maestro Dave Loeb, you will be entertained in a way you’ve never been before.


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


Here are links to some articles and reviews of the new show at the Encore Theater in Las Vegas.  

CNN: World:

Las Vegas Sun: ShowStoppers Signal the Return of ‘One Heckuva Vegas Show’? | Vegas Seven

‘Spider-Man’ is out, but something is brewing at Wynn/Encore


Spider-Man appears during the musical “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” at Foxwoods Theater in New York on Thursday, June 2, 2011.

By John Katsilometes (contact

Friday, Aug. 1, 2014 | 3:12 p.m.

Philip William McKinley’s name — all three of them, in fact — certainly surfaces with great frequency at Wynn and Encore Las Vegas.

McKinley has been the director of “Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark” on Broadway, from 2011 (when he replaced Julie Taymor in the oft-troubled musical) until the production’s closing in January. It was expected and even announced that a version of the stuffed-with-special-effects musical was heading to Las Vegas this year, with the likely venue Encore Theatre.

This feeling was further cemented when McKinley delivered a spectacular production to Wynn Las Vegas in March, an extravaganza starring Hugh Jackman (with a boost from Broadway star Rachel York) and backed by 36 dancers and a 32-piece orchestra. Guests included Quincy Jones and Steven Spielberg. The cost for the show, which was carried out in a “Great Gatsby” 1920s theme, reportedly ballooned to $5 million.

That McKinley and sound man Jonathan Deans, who also worked on “Spider-Man,” was recruited for an event so personally important to Steve Wynn led observers to believe that an announcement of the musical was a mere formality. Not so. Co-producer Michael Cohl said last week that, in place of a resident show in Las Vegas, the musical would tour tour arenas starting in late 2015 or early 2016.

“I think ‘Spider-Man’ is a pop culture show that was meant to be in arenas,” Cohl told the Wall Street Journal in a story published last Friday. (And hey, maybe it’ll play Vegas afterall, in the new MGM Resorts arena between New York-New York and Monte Carlo.)

Spidey’s vault from a planned residency on the Strip to a game of hopscotch across the country seems an unfortunate bit of news for entertainment consumers in Vegas. But also tied to this announcement, at least peripherally, is a show brewing at Wynn and Encore – with McKinley as the director.

Auditions are planned in a couple of weeks for a production listed at Wynn/Encore that would begin rehearsals in October. Along with McKinley, the creative team is headed up by choreographer Marguirite Derricks, who has worked on “Zumanity” at New York-New York. One casting-call notice issued by Louanne Madorma, Wynn’s casting director who built the talent onstage in “Le Reve,” is for four principal vocalists: Two women and two men, all of whom are required to have “legit” Broadway, belt-it-out caliber voices.

Songs required include “All That Jazz” and “Razzle Dazzle” from Chicago, “Adelaide’s Lament” and “Luck Be a Lady” from “Guys and Dolls,” “It’s Today” from “Mame,” “Those Were the Days” from “Damn Yankees” and “Willkommen” from “Cabaret.”

Most telling, the contracts for the upcoming project are said to be open-ended with an “out” clause, which is a good indication that this production is to be … open-ended. Hotel officials and McKinley himself are not talking about what’s happening, but it seems that by fall, more shall be revealed at Wynn/Encore.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at

Andrea Wynn’s multimillion-dollar birthday party is ‘Gatsby’ themed, but hints to Spidey

By John Katsilometes (contact)

How does the oft-speculated arrival of the musical “Spider-Man” factor into the 50th birthday bash for Andrea Wynn?

(Pause as you mull that question.)

The opulent, invite-only gala for the former Andrea Hissom was held Saturday night at Wynn Las Vegas. The event starred Hugh Jackman and featured more than 70 dancers and musicians.

The director of the customized birthday production — and this was a multimillion-dollar dinner and performance — was Phillip William McKinley, who in 2011 replaced Julie Taymor as director of “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.”

In November, word spread from Broadway and through Las Vegas that Steve Wynn was in talks to bring the musical to Encore Theater, having rejected the in-development production of “Fun House” he was mulling for the resort.

McKinley and Jackman worked together on “The Boy From Oz,” the musical based on the life of Peter Allen for which Jackman won a Tony Award in 2004. Saturday’s event was a huge bash, with an initial budget of $2 million that was said to expand to $5 million by fruition. Performers rehearsed for 8 to 15 hours a day for two weeks.

The soundman, Jonathan Deans, also was one of the best in the business. Deans has worked on “Spider-Man” and has been nominated for a Tony for Best Sound Design for “Pippin.” Deans has Cirque du Soleil connections, too, for his work on “Mystere,” “Ka,” and “O.”

Jackman was at the center of an hourlong series of production numbers, including “All That Jazz” and “Hot Honey Rag.” Though rumors of Catherine Zeta-Jones singing in the show proved off-target, Broadway star Rachel York (“City of Angels,” “Victor/Victoria,” “Les Miserables”) did turn up to perform for the estimated 300 guests.

A total of 36 dancers and a 32-piece orchestra performed for an audience of VIP that included the likes of Quincy Jones and Steven Spielberg. The dress and decor was a “Great Gatsby”-1920s theme.

Those who worked with and interacted with Jackman said that he was a real pro who used his Aussie charm to great effect.

When Wynn needed the best of the best for this singularly impressive event, Jackman and the savior of “Spider-Man” got the call.