Spotlight Soirée presented at The Palace Theatre in Stamford, CT their annual gala to support the theatre and its Arts education Programs. Who better to offer as a model to up and coming students, but the iconic and dazzling, Ben Vereen. The entire event conveyed this theme of love and gratitude for the arts, with Mr. Vereen himself, dubbing the show his “gratitude tour.”
by Kathryn Kitt
Everything, including the cocktail hour, contortionists, and vendors were tailor made to honor Mr. Vereen and his legendary career on March 31. The energy in the air was of love and respect for Mr. Vereen. The evening also consisted of several awards given to organizations and young emerging artists. These included the ovation award to RFR Realty. Their passion and philanthropy of the performing arts has helped the Palace to enable the arts education and program top entertainment. Other honorees included Ariel Abergel, who won the 2016 Ernie DiMattia Award, the emerging young artist scholarship for writing an original play. Kaitlyn Gonzalez and Rukiya Henry-Fields won the Ernie DiMattia Award for acting.
Lori Mercede and Robyn Bova, co-chairs of the Spotlight Soirée, enthusiastically introduced the performances, starting with a stunningly choreographed dance by the Thomas Ortiz Dance Company. Co-choreographed by Ted Thomas and Frances Ortiz, the dancers evoked feelings of love/hate relationships within themselves, to the music of the Kronos Quartet. The piece was so moving, that Mr. Vereen brought them back for another ovation before he began his show.
Before Ben Vereen took the stage, the audience was primed by a cinematic montage of his multi-faceted career. Everything from Pippin, in which he won the Tony Award and Drama Desk Award for “Best Actor in a Musical,” to interviews were highlighted. It was quite moving to see just how much of an impact he made with his flawless dancing and showmanship.
It is quite difficult to sum up what a showman Mr. Vereen truly is. He performed songs from Steven Schwartz’s catalogue, including his famous Pippin songs, and his own renditions of “Defying Gravity” and “For Good” from Wicked. His anecdotes of Sammy Davis, Jr., who he always seemed to be in tandem with to his heartbreaking recollection of the car accident that almost killed him brought tears to the audience. It certainly made sense for him to sing “My Way” after all these memories, for his career was unique. One is hard to compare anyone today to his style and talent.
One of the most heartwarming and gracious moments was when he acknowledged his band and all the people in his life. He truly honors all his collaborators and that is what makes him such a star. His whole theme was “stand up for the arts” and he even sang that line in his version of “Stand by Me.” The audience could not help but join in on the chorus. Mr. Vereen’s first love has always been theater, and he himself refers to it as his “first training ground – where he learned discipline, dedication, and appreciation of hard work and values that will stay with him for a lifetime.”
Mr. Vereen deservedly received a huge ovation and concluded by announcing his upcoming appearance in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, directed by Kenny Ortega for Fox. This will luckily give younger generations the chance to experience his talent.
Following the show, there was a reception which I was happy to attend. Mr. Vereen was just as warm and inviting in person as he is on stage and I thanked him for being such a wonderful entertainer and important influence upon theatregoers and performers.
The evening at the Palace Theatre was a huge success and I look forward to seeing future events. It is very encouraging to see a town like Stamford, Connecticut offer high quality entertainment, and I truly hope more people will make the short trip from NYC and surrounding towns to experience this wonderful venue.
Congratulations to Ben Vereen and to all the honorees! It was a triumphant evening!