Ben Vereen’s new cabaret act at 54 Below resembles his debut club act several years ago at Feinstein’s, but is sufficiently different to meet the venue’s “all new acts” policy. It’s across-the-board jazzier, and Vereen, who has a reputation for a high level of professionalism, in now much more attuned to the intimate cabaret setting.
Loosely organized around Vereen’s own career, the first part of the show finds him singing the songs of his early successes in Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar and Pippin – he opens the show riffing on the latter’s “Magic to Do” – but with an off-the-cuff improvisatory flair; they are similar to his more famous renditions only in the fervent energy he lends them.
Vereen’s patter is laced with great good humor – especially relating self-deprecating anecdotes about encounters with Bob Fosse and Andrew Lloyd Webber – and he still moves and dances with fantastic commitment and vigor. I am very pleased that this act, like the earlier one, also has an extended tribute to Sammy Davis Jr., again a definite high point, especially in a passionate rendition of “Mr. Bojangles”.
After singing the praises of the arts in a version of “Stand By Me” that morphs into “Stand by the Arts”, Vereen returns to autobiography near the end of the act. He details his difficult return to health – and Broadway – after a 1992 car accident that resulted in multiple injuries and a stroke. This leads into “For Good” from Wicked (Vereen went in as the Wizard some time back), a song that makes even more emotional sense here than in the musical. Vereen is one of musical theatre’s master performers, and this is not to be missed.
For tickets, click here.
For more reviews and interviews by Jonathan Warman, see his blog Drama Queen.