July 6 - 11, 2010
AN EXTRAORDINARY ENTERTAINER
Reviewed by Donna Bailey-Thompson
Unless one is familiar with Ben Vereen’s performance magic, the generic billing, “An Evening with Ben Vereen” means nada. However, any of the uninitiated (in the almost SRO audience Tuesday evening), couldn’t help recognizing they were witnessing an extraordinary entertainer still at the top of his game. Oh sure, he’s no longer a young buck ‘n wing dancer, but at 63 he’s seasoned and savvy. He knows himself, what still works for him, and he lays it out with good humor. The show is expertly paced, building segments akin to a play’s separate acts – Vereen’s early history, the Bob Fosse influence, the Sinatra thank you, the Sammy Davis, Jr. tribute, the musicians’ musician innovative jam, and at almost two hours the final wrap that brought the audience to its feet, who continued applauding until his last incarnation as Mr. Bojangles reappeared long enough to wave and mime “Thank you.”
Of Hartford Stage’s Broadway Legends trilogy – Elaine Stritch, Chita Rivera, Ben Vereen – each performer’s forte an outstanding gift and oh, so different from one another that it isn’t fair to compare, however! Vereen’s package is the most polished, confident. But! he’s the kid on the block – 22 years younger than Stritch (85), 14 years younger than Rivera (77). Age, dammit, is a factor.
Vereen seldom walks. He dances from point A to point B. He swirls, glides, slides, the movements in synch with whatever song he’s interpreting. He almost does a Jackie Gleason “and-away-we-go” swoop. The soft material of the creamy beige suit he wears is a testament to superb tailoring: the smoothness of his moves is echoed by impeccable draping. A black dress shirt, silvery tie, and sneakers – yup! – complete his costume that after two hours of non-stop performing, looks as fresh as it did when he began the show with, “Life is just a bowl of cherries...” and then eased into Cole Porter’s, “With a song in my heart...” followed by, “Getting to know you...” and then thanking the audience “for inviting me here – in exile” (picking up on Michael Wilson’s reference to Hartford Stage’s temporary venue while HS is being renovated).
(This review to be continued. In the meantime, know that if you miss seeing
Ben Vereen, you are robbing yourself of enjoying a singular sensation.)