THEATRE REVIEW: Ben Vereen shares the love in Venice concerts
Ben Vereen may not be able to move the way he once did — two knee surgeries took care of that – but there’s no denying the high-wattage charisma he put into his sold-out weekend performances of performance of “Steppin’ Out Life with Ben Vereen” at Venice Theatre.
From the start, he noted that he no longer does cartwheels — “been there, done that,” he joked. But there is plenty of movement in his every song. He walks with a slight, almost undetectable limp, but you can sense the inner spirit running through his body and emerging in his slightly raspy but pleasing voice and the sparkle in his eyes.
The 66-year-old Vereen presented three sold-out shows on Friday and Saturday in Venice, thanking the crowd for joining him on his wide-ranging career, from Tony-winning Broadway star (for “Pippin”) to television icon thanks to Chicken George in “Roots” and all the performances since.
It’s a two-hour disjointed thank you concert.
In an interview he said he is working on an autobiographical show for Broadway and it appeared that he used parts of the concert to test out some promising material.
He recalls the young Brooklyn boy who found himself performing in “The King and I” and being encouraged to attend the High School for the Performing Arts in Manhattan and auditioning for Bob Fosse for a Las Vegas production of “Sweet Charity.”
He also does a brief medley of songs from his Broadway shows, including “Corner of the Sky,” “Aquarius” and “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and a full-throated version of “Defying Gravity,” from “Wicked,” in which he played the Wizard of Oz.
The story jumps around in a scattershot manner, rarely linking one tale to a song. But there are segments that work more seamlessly, like a first-act tribute to Frank Sinatra, who he said made it possible for a black man like him to perform on stage.
And he opens the second act with a lengthy salute to Sammy Davis Jr., for whom he was an understudy in the musical “Golden Boy.” The segment included the songs “Once in a Lifetime," “That Old Black Magic,” and “A Lotta Livin’ to Do,” from “Bye, Bye Birdie.”
He also gives attention to his quartet of musicians. Each performs a solo while he sings in a loose, jazzy blues style. They include “Misty” with drummer Marc Marc Dicciani, “Your Song,” with bassist Thomas Kennedy, “At Last,” with pianist David Loeb, and “Over the Rainbow” with his son Aaron Vereen on the bongo.
He talked about how he recovered faster than doctors thought possible after a stroke and a near fatal car crash in 1992. He was back on Broadway in just 10 months. That’s reason enough for him to celebrate.
He closed with a touching, low-key version of “For Good” a tender song from “Wicked,” in which he shares that joy with the crowd, who jumped to their feet in an outpouring of obvious affection.
STEPPIN’ OUT LIVE WITH BEN VEREEN. Reviewed Feb. 8. Venice Theatre.