Despite being 65 years old, entertainer Ben Vereen is as young as they come, in terms of energy and vivacity. Saturday night, he showed his passion for life and musical greats in a one-man show, “Steppin’ Out with Ben Vereen,” at the Collins Center for the Arts.
The term “one-man show” is actually misleading, as the Tony Award-winning singer, actor and dancer was accompanied by a four-piece band of piano, drums, upright bass and congas for an evening that saw Vereen paying tribute to Broadway, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr.
After a quick introductory video clip that showed some of Vereen’s career highlights, like his starring role in the musical “Pippin” in the early ’70s, he walked on stage, smartly dressed in a suit, a tall top hat, a cane, Converse sneakers and a smile. After the applause died down, Vereen joked, “Thank you very much. Good night. I’ll quit while I’m ahead.”
Before launching into his performance, Vereen indirectly explained his cane, saying he had surgery on his knee a couple weeks earlier and got a staph infection from the operation.
That didn’t stop him from putting on a big smile and dancing as he sang “Magic To Do.” Vereen’s voice had a dramatic Broadway flair, but not too much so as to detract from his pure vocal talent, and his dance moves were simple — indicative that he was more agile in his heyday than in his advanced age.
Vereen expressed his appreciation for the people of the Bangor area who he saw greeting members of the military who were departing to go overseas.
“I don’t want to applaud you, I want to give you a standing ovation,” Vereen said. “I saw my troops getting ready to go God knows where, and you were there.”
After another song, Vereen talked about his early life and getting started in show business.
“I come from a place called Brooklyn, NY,” Vereen said. After brief applause, he singled out one audience member and asked, “Have you seen my hubcaps? We’ll talk later.”
He also talked about his first audition for a musical, doing impressions of other auditioning hopefuls, singing a snippet of “Blue Skies” and revealing that he got the part.
Vereen then sang a medley of Broadway hits, switching between bombastic vocals and near-spoken word when the situation called for it. During a soft section in one of the songs, the audience started clapping, and Vereen lightheartedly responded, “Thank you, but I’ll tell you when.”
Before singing “Jesus Christ Superstar,” the title song from the musical he won a Tony Award for his role as Judas Iscariot, Vereen talked about how he got the part.
“I was living in Berkeley, [Calif.], and I got this telegram from … You remember telegrams?” he asked the audience.
He continued to say the telegram was from theatre director Tom O’Horgan, who wanted Vereen to audition for the role. Vereen bought a record of the play and rehearsed to it, but when he showed up at the audition, the pianist played the song in a different key than Vereen had rehearsed, so he said, “Excuse me, that’s not the song.” The pianist turned out to be Andrew Lloyd Webber, the composer of the musical.
Part of Vereen’s set was devoted to a tribute of Frank Sinatra, during which he sang classic Sinatra songs, like “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “The Lady is a Tramp.”
“Young people must know on whose backs they’re standing,” Vereen said of Sinatra’s importance to modern music.
After a passionate performance of “My Way” to conclude the tribute to Sinatra, Vereen left the stage. A video of Vereen’s appearance on “The Mike Douglas Show” played. Vereen was singing a Sammy Davis, Jr. song when Davis Jr. surprised Vereen so much that he stopped singing and gave him a long hug. The clip faded out and transitioned into Vereen and the band playing the last few seconds of the song.
“I have lived enough in America to be ‘colored,’” Vereen said. “I have lived enough in America to be ‘black.’ I have lived enough to be ‘negro.’ Now, I’m ‘African-American.’”
Vereen then talked about how Sinatra opened the doors for African-American performers like Davis and himself. Then he started his section of Davis songs, saying, “Sammy gave us great songs like this. Now see if it touches your heart,” and sang “Once in a Lifetime.”
He also talked about how Las Vegas is “Disney World for adults:” “[Vegas used to be] run by some cool cats like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr.”
Vereen also said “Sammy Davis [Jr.] would come out and play every instrument in the orchestra, then he’d dance for you, then he’d do impressions of some white people.”
After declaring his “love, admiration and respect” for his backing band, he performed a song with each of them that featured only his vocals and their instrument. He performed “Misty” with his drummer, who ditched his sticks and used his hands; “My Funny Valentine” with the upright bass player; “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” with possible relative Aaron Vereen on the conga; and “At Last” with his pianist.
To cap off the evening, Vereen talked about an accident he was in 20 years ago.
“In 1992,” he said, “I was driving and a tree jumped in the middle of the road and hit my car.”
He sustained serious injuries and was told it would be years before he walked again, but he was on his feet in just a few months.
“It was your prayers that pulled me through,” Vereen said. “It was your prayers that made me want to get back on stage.”
He then gave an emotional performance of “For Good,” from the musical “Wicked.” Just when it seemed Vereen was on the verge of tears, the song was over. He thanked the already standing and applauding crowd and left the stage.