Thursday, February 24, 2011

Stepping Out with Ben Vereen

I’ve always loved Ben Vereen’s smile. It’s big and wide and seems more genuine than most in show business. It gives him the aura of being a happy man, which is just what he appeared to be Friday night for his “Stepping Out” show performed with spirit and humor before a sold-old crowd at Town Hall.

With song, dance and story, Vereen kept the audience cheering and applauding throughout the two-hour concert. In the past couple of years I’ve seen magnificent shows by two other musical legends, Tommy Tune and Liza Minnelli (who was in the audience Friday, as was Chita Rivera), and loved every minute. But Vereen’s evening was different. Like Tune and Minnelli he’s an energetic and giving performer, but he has a warmth that goes beyond just loving the material and being onstage. He creates the intimacy of a gathering of friends. The joy of the connection between performer and audience was palpable.

The evening began with a montage of film clips of past performances and then the man himself danced onstage to sing “With a Song in My Heart.” Addressing the audience, as he was to do throughout the show, he expressed how thrilled he was to be back home in New York. He’s been living in Los Angeles where “the most exciting thing to do is get in my car and drive to the grocery store -- and that’s across the street.”

In wonderful storytelling fashion, he shared anecdotes of his journey to showbiz fame, starting with how his talent was recognized when he was 9 and starring in his Brooklyn elementary school’s production of The King and I. The principal told him he should apply to the High School for the Performing Arts in Manhattan. Thrilled, he ran to a phone booth to call his mother.

“Remember phone booths,” he asked the audience, most of whom were old enough and laughed at that and other “remembers?” he threw out -- actually dialing a phone? albums? tapes? -- creating as sense of fun and inclusiveness.

The principal was right in his assessment and Vereen did indeed go to the Performing Arts high school in that magical world of the theatre district with Broadway -- and his future -- right down the street. And he gifted us with songs from that land, from Pippin (for which he won a Tony Award) Jesus Christ Superstar (Tony nomination), Hair and Wicked.

Soon after graduation he auditioned for Bob Fosse who was casting Sweet Charity for a run in Las Vegas. Since he hadn’t prepared a song, he had to rely on the one made available for such emergencies, “Blue Skies,” the words of which were printed on signs on the stage floor. He gave a hilarious version of that experience, singing the song in swing time, glancing down all the while for the next words, trying to keep up.

Once again his talent shown through and Fosse was impressed enough to take him on, so Vereen, the little kid from Brooklyn, was headed for the lights of Vegas in 1967. He rewarded us with a couple of verses of “If They Could See Me Now.”

It was in that world of casinos and nightclub acts that Vereen met a singer who impressed him with the support he gave to African-American performers, which caused him to laugh before finishing his story. “African-American,” he asked. “I’ve lived long enough to have been colored.”

After colored he was Negro and then black. “Now I’m African-American,” he said with pretend wonder. “People, I’m from Brooklyn.”

After revealing the helper of the colored/Negro/black/African-American performers, Frank Sinatra, he sang several of the songs he made famous, the standout of which was a powerfully moving “My Way” that had far more emotional impact than any version ever sung by Old Blue Eyes.

The second act provided a chance to honor another performer he met in Las Vegas, Sammy Davis Jr. The segment began with Davis and Vereen singing together “This is the Life” from Golden Boy in a clip (from around 1968) from “The Mike Douglas Show.” (This could have called for another “Remember?” I remember “The Mike Douglas Show.”) It was touching to see the two of them together, with Vereen looking so young and enthusiastic. (Actually Vereen still looks enthusiastic and, despite his 65 years, youthful.)

He spoke of how impressed he was by Davis’s graciousness toward his musicians, and then followed in his example, allowing each of his a long solo before joining them in song. Drummer Marc Dicciani charmed us with “Misty,” bassist Tom Kennedy “My Funny Valentine,” percussionist Aaron Vereen (his son) performed a novel “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and conductor and pianist Nelson Kole “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.” Glorious, each.

He closed with a heartfelt thanks to all of us, his fans, who have been there for him throughout his career. He alluded in passing to his 1992 car accident after which he suffered a stroke and was hit by a second car (all in the same night), acknowledging in the audience the doctor who helped him to speak again and Minnelli and Rivera (who also had recovered from a car accident and to whom he turned for support during his healing process). (Incidentally, Chita and Liza were seated on opposite sides of the theatre. Coincidence or bad blood, I wondered later?)

Voicing his appreciation with a most appropriate song, he ended with “For Good” from Wicked. “I’ve heard it said/ that people comes into our lives for a reason/bringing something we must learn/ and we are led/ to those who help us most to grow/ if we let them/ and we help them in return./ Well, I don’t know if I believe that’s true/ but I know I’m who I am today/ because I knew you.”

I think everyone in the audience felt the same way that night.

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