If, heaven forfend, New York City gets hit with a blackout in the next two weeks, all Con Edison needs to do is head over to 54 Below, where Steppin’ Out With Ben Vereen is making its Gotham debut. Without question, the 65-years-young star is expending enough energy up there to power all of the Big Apple.
But it’s not just the sweat — caused in large part by Vereen’s still-remarkable facility to dance like no one else (a fact made even more amazing by the fact that he was nearly paralyzed in 1992) — that causes one to gasp or applaud repeatedly during this 75-minute set.
Instead, it’s the tears — and the passion — that Vereen brings to his material that truly impresses. Every song has been chosen because of a personal connection and delivered with complete conviction.
The show begins with an extraordinary medley of tunes from Vereen’s earliest Broadway work, including numbers from Pippin (for which he won the Tony Award) and Jesus Christ Superstar, interspersed with loving and sometimes hilarious anecdotes about Bob Fosse, Tom O’Horgan, and Andrew Lloyd Webber, and then wends its way through various autobiographically-inspired segments.
Among the highlights are a swinging salute to Frank Sinatra (which culminates with a stunning version of “My Way”), a heartfelt tribute to Sammy Davis, Jr. that features a rewritten version of “Mr. Bojangles,” and a special rendition of Ben E, King’s “Stand By Me” that urges the audience to “Stand Up for the Arts.” (And trust me, the audience follows instructions!)
For all of Vereen’s considerable razzle-dazzle, though, the show finds its heart with its slower-tempo numbers, which are presented in such a way that one really considers the lyrics to these fine songs as if heard for the first time: Charles Aznavour’s “I Didn’t See The Time Go By,” the classic “Life Is Just Bowl of a Cherries,” and even Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s sentimental “Your Song” (dedicated on opening night to Vereen’s close friend, Liza Minnelli, one of the many celebrities in the packed house).
But at no time does Vereen make more of an impact than with two of Stephen Schwartz’s tunes from Wicked (a show Vereen did on Broadway): “Defying Gravity,” which gains added inspirational value from the knowledge of the adversity that Vereen personally overcame, and his final number, “For Good,” in which he tells us how everyone’s prayers aided in his recovery 20 years ago.
Seeing Ben Vereen will definitely change you both for the better and for good.