By Walter Rutledge
February 18, 2011 marked the return of theatrical icon Ben Vereen to the New York stage. The one night only performance was presented to a sold out crowd at Time Square’s landmark theatrical venue Town Hall. An Evening with Ben Vereen was a resounding testament to both the man and his artistic legacy.
The performance coincides with the release of his new CD entitled, Steppin Out With Ben Vereen. In fact it is his first musical offering produced in the CD format. The concert featured the material from the 11 track CD, but at times seemed to be the musical backdrop to an autobiographic journey.
We followed him down the path of a life well traveled. His artistry seemed to pass from your heart, through his soul, and then radiated out to the enthusiastic Town Hall audience. It was joyous and reverent, proud yet humble. More than just storytelling, or recalling anecdotal remembrances (which is much harder than it appears), he still has the sincere and focused ability to touch people.
The first act was almost a concert by itself. The stage featured four musicians; conductor and pianist Nelson Kole, bassist Tom Kennedy, drummer Marc Dicciani, and percussionist Aaron Vereen. A screen above center stage displayed a logo reminiscent of a Hirschfield sketch of the performer. Vereen shared his early love of theater, his days at the High School for the Performing Arts, his professional beginnings and artistic triumphs.
In the second act Vereen transformed Town Hall into an intimate downtown club. His approach was more personable, and artistically diverse. One of the highlights was his solo performances with each of the four musicians. He also took the time to introduce a few of his friends that came out to support him including Chita Rivera and Liza Minelli.
Vereen remains a special breed of performer- a triple treat, part song and dance man, part sage, and a total original. A master of this craft he is a consummate and totally committed performer, who embodies the transformational character known as the Entertainer. Al Jolson, Bert Williams, Ethel Waters, Josephine Baker, James Cagney, John Bubbles, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Chita Rivera, Liza Minelli, Sammy Davis Jr., and Ben Vereen are a few who proudly wear this mantel.
Following the performance a portrait of Vereen was unveiled at Tony di Napoli’s restaurant. Vereen graciously thanked a special group of theater patrons, who were treated to a sumptuous buffet and post concert merriment. Vereen won the Tony Award for his renowned performance in Bob Fosse‘s Pippin, and has also starred on Broadway in Wicked, Fosse, Chicago, Jesus Christ Superstar, Hair, Jelly’s Last Jam, Grind, A Christmas Carol and I’m Not Rappaport.
Photo Credit: Kevin Thomas Garcia