Cabaret review: Ben Vereen at 54 Below
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Ben Vereen puts on a whirlwind of a show that features showtunes, like ‘Magic to Do’ and ‘Corner of the Sky’ from ‘Pippin.’
Ben Vereen never holds back.
In his new cabaret show focused on hits from the Great White Way and Ol’ Blue Eyes, Vereen blows onto the stage with a gale force ready to sweep the audience up, up and away.
The packed house at 54 Below on Wednesday was happy to go along for the trip during the exuberant “Steppin’ Out With Ben Vereen,” running through July 21 at 54 Below.
The subterranean venue near Studio 54, which opened last month, is a looker — comfy and airy. It’s a perfect setting for Vereen, who’s known for “Pippin” (for which he won a Tony) and “Jesus Christ Superstar,” the miniseries “Roots” and films like “Lucky Lady.”
Nearly everything about Vereen’s style of entertainment is outsized — from his contagious wide grin and nimble dance moves (he frequently busts them out) to his big heart.
That comes through whether he’s recalling early career tales about Bob Fosse and Andrew Lloyd Webber or saluting Sammy Davis Jr. with a tweaked version of “Mr. Bojangles” or delivering an urgent “Stand Up for the Arts,” sung to the tune of Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me.” By the time it’s over, he has the crowd on its feet.
Another thing that’s big: Vereen’s dry-cleaning bill. At the end of the 75-minute set, his medium-blue shirt has turned a soggy deep indigo. No wonder he takes off a black jacket and bowler hat and rolls up his shirtsleeves minutes into the act.
It’s a medley-heavy evening, beginning with a bouncy Broadway brew. This includes “Magic to Do” and “Corner of the Sky” from “Pippin” and “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and the title song from “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
Midway through, there’s another mashup. This time, it’s Frank Sinatra tunes like “The Lady Is a Tramp” and “Come Fly with Me.” Fast-paced, finger-snapping stuff.
“Steppin’ Out” is actually at its best when it steps back and pumps the brakes. The sweet and quiet cover of the Elton John and Bernie Taupin tune “Your Song” is a wonderful moment. Ditto Charles Aznavour’s “I Didn’t See the Time Go By” and Stephen Schwartz’s “For Good” from “Wicked.”
Those songs assume added dimension when Vereen reflects on a 1992 accident that could have left him paralyzed. “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” and “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries” take on a tangy and touching irony.
Accompanying Vereen are a talented trio: David Loeb on piano, Marc DiCianni on drums and Tom Kennedy on bass. On Wednesday, Vereen got some added percussive bursts from pal Liza Minnelli, whose frequent giddy laughs from the audience added their own special beats. After the show, Liza with a Z was heard asking a question to which she already knew the answer: “Wasn’t Ben great?”