by: Paulanne Simmons
At the very beginning of Ben Vereen’s Steppin’ Out at 54 Below, the audience watches a short montage of the high points in Vereen’s career as an actor/dancer/singer. That’s a pretty good indication of what the evening will be: a nostalgic, sometimes humble, often funny reflection on Vereen’s journey from Brooklyn to Broadway.
“This is an evening about me,” he announces. Then he quickly adds, “But it’s also about you. Because if it hadn’t been for you I wouldn’t be here today.” Thus the audience and the entertainer become complicit in Vereen’s story of how he overcame the odds and overwhelmed his audiences.
Among the memorable moments of Vereen’s life are his advising Andrew Lloyd Webber that he was playing “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” incorrectly and his very first audition when he was asked to read lyrics printed on the floor of the stage.
Of course, the show includes medleys from the Broadway shows: Pippin, Jesus Christ Superstar, Wicked, Hair. But there’s also a heartfelt tribute to Frank Sinatra, who Vereen said was a great friend of African American performers.
One such performer was Sammy Davis Jr., and Vereen pays tribute to him as well with “Once in a Lifetime.” Vereen, who has a smooth, silky voice, is the perfect interpreter of Davis.
Vereen shares the story of that terrible day in 1992 when he crashed his car into a tree, suffered a stroke and was hit by a car. He believes his story can be an inspiration for those who think they have come to the end of the road and can’t go on anymore.
The note of inspiration continued with Vereen’s version of “Stand By Me,’ in which he had the entire audience on its feet as he sang “Stand by the arts.” Among the many benefits of the arts, Vereen believes is their ability to keep the peace.
“You can’t pick up a gun when you’re too busy playing the violin,” he wisely observed.
At one point in the evening Vereen says, “They call you fans. I call you family.” When he concludes with Wicked’s “For Good,” many people in the audience no doubt felt a very real connection with this sincere and sensational performer.
Steppin’ Out runs through March 21 at 54 Below, 254 West 54 St., www.54below.com