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San Francisco by Richard Connema

A Charismatic Performance by Ben Vereen in Steppin' Out

Also see Richard's review of American Idiot

Ben Vereen, star of stage and screen musicals including Hair, Sweet Charity, Pippin (for which he won a Tony) and Jesus Christ Superstar, lit up the Rrazz Room with his voice and jubilant spirit on June 12th. Unlike some performers, Vereen held the stage for over an hour without intermission. Backed by Dave Loeb on piano, Tom Kennedy on bass, and Marc Dicciani on drums, Vereen presented a fabulous show. He looked joyful and healthy in a loose fitting bronze suit, singing, talking, joking and showing some great dance steps. He was like the Energizer Bunny as he connected with the audience, opening the show with a samba arrangement of "With a Song In My Heart."

Steppin' Out was a trip down memory lane, with Vereen talking about starting in San Francisco where he slept in a truck, then going into a great arrangement of "A Puzzlement" from The King and I, with his own lyrics.. He talked about going to the High School of Performing Arts in New York and how he second-acted Broadway musicals. "I saw a lot of half shows" he said.

He talked about the auditions he went to and admitted to making a couple of beginner's mistakes during his big break audition with legendary choreographer Bob Fosse, though he was still picked for Sweet Charity. He mentioned that, during an audition for Jesus Christ Superstar, a pianist came up to the stage and he asked the pianist to play the piece in a certain key. The pianist was Andrew Lloyd Webber. Vereen told the packed crowd that he had played the Orpheum in Hair and went into a great arrangement of "Aquarius." He never glorified himself when giving out these stories.

There were many standout moments during the spirited act, including his renditions of "Old Black Magic" and "Once in a Lifetime" in a Sammy Davis Jr. style. One of best musical moments was his powerful singing of Stephen Schwartz's "Defying Gravity" from Wicked. A highlight was a 15-minute segment late in the show where he sang a song with only one instrument accompanying him. First it was Marc Dicciani matching his vocals on drums. Then Tom Kennedy matched the singer on "Misty" and, finally, it was "At Last" with Dave Loeb collaborating on piano.

Vereen mentioned that he was severely injured in a car accident in 1992. The doctors told him it would be three years before he could perform. However, within ten months, even having had both knees replaced, he was performing and dancing on stage. He thanked the audience for their prayers and believed that's what got him through this worst period of his life.

Ben Vereen still has great moves, reminding me of his ever-present expressiveness, the way he revolved his hand to accompany a song or the swaggering walk he used to evoke a jive youth. Maybe his physical presence is not as supple and sleek as when I first saw him in the '60s and '70s but his magnetism and fine musical voice are still solid. He has the actor's ability to induce an emotional response to each of his songs. For an encore, he did a superb rendition of "Mr. Bojangles."

Ben Vereen played the Rrazz Room at the Hotel Nikko for one week starting on June 12th. His show Steppin' Out will play in New York for two weeks in July. For a lineup of the Rrazz Room go to www.therrazzroom.com/Events.html.

- Richard Connema



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