Ben Vereen
Ben Vereen
Most cabaret shows, especially those in New York's major rooms, are the musical equivalent of the well-made play, with strict adherence to a pre-set song list and over-rehearsed patter that lend them an air of great professionalism, while also robbing them of any spontaneity. An Intimate Evening with Ben Vereen, which opened last night at Feinstein's at the Regency for a two-week engagement, is not one of those shows.

The Tony Award-winning star's first foray into this specialized art form in more than 30 years is a slightly ramshackle affair that at times seemed to live up to Vereen's comment that he was making it up as he went along. Vereen said whatever came into his head, changed his song selection at a moment's notice, and appeared not to worry about such cabaret conventions as completing an arc.

Far more importantly, this 75-minute show was also an exhibition of this dynamic, 60-year-old entertainer's numerous strengths, including a still powerful and supple voice, an actor's instinct for finding truth in every lyric, the ability to move with the extraordinary agility of someone half his age, and a sense of genuine connection with an audience.

Indeed, parts of Vereen's act are likely to be some of the year's most memorable moments, including a gorgeous version of "Misty" accompanied only by the drumming of Obed Calvaire, a superbly rhythmic spin on "That Old Black Magic," and an extremely dramatic rendition of "Memory" that might tempt some canny producer to revive Cats and cast Vereen as Grizabella.

That song concluded the show's opening segment, which otherwise focused on Vereen's early triumphs on Broadway. A lovely, jazz-tinged take on "Magic to Do" from Pippin -- the show which won Vereen his Tony in 1973 -- was followed by snippets of two songs from Hair and a medley from Jesus Christ Superstar, neither of which did full justice to the material. One also wishes Vereen told some more substantial stories of those remarkable experiences, rather than just offering praise for collaborators like Bob Fosse.

But things turned sharply for the better with Vereen's excellent tribute to Frank Sinatra, which concluded with a first-rate, heartfelt "My Way." Next came the show's unquestionable highlight: a salute to his performing icon, Sammy Davis Jr. Without resorting to cheap impersonation, Vereen brilliantly catches the essence of the legendary star. With any luck, Vereen's next New York engagement will be the full-length tribute show to Davis that he has performed in large halls around the country.

Still, there's something to be said about spending "an intimate evening" with a performer of Vereen's caliber, especially a night as unpredictable and often exciting as this one turned out to be.