As this year's Adelaide Cabaret Festival starts to wrap up it was nothing short of a complete delight to be entertained by a legend of the American Broadway stage Ben Vereen.
He has been treading the boards for the last fifty years and made some brilliant appearances in movie musicals like 'Funny Lady' and 'All That Jazz'. Vereen is possibly not so broadly known in Australia because this is his first time here, but he has been awarded Tony Awards for his outstanding performances and has been highly praised for his work not only on stage but as a speaker on civil rights and African American history. He also has a great blog for people with Diabetes type 2.
He mentions that once upon a time a few decades back he was 'Coloured', then a 'Negro' then 'Black', then a 'Black American' and now an 'African American' but does not dwell on the ever changing kaleidoscope of identity except to quote Rodney King asking, "Can't we just all get along?" He sang "Blue Skies", "If they could see me now", "Magic To Do" and a raft of beautiful songs from the late jazz standard era including "At Last".
He played video clips from television appearances, sang from songs from "Hair" and "Wicked" and paid tribute to Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. two of the established stars who took him under their wing back in the day.
Vereen whimsically reminds us of the 'old days' of records and record players, old school telephones and cassette players. Hip as he is, he knows how rapidly things have changed in his lifetime and uses it to raise a few laughs rather than get too serious.
Although he has not tread the boards in Australia he has graced our living rooms with notable moments on 'The Muppet Show' and on 'The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air' (as Will Smith's father). He made several appearances on the 80's sitcom 'Webster' as the title character's uncle. We've seen him in 'Star Trek: The Next Generation', 'The Nanny' and 'How I Met Your Mother' so many Australians may recognise him from television rather than the stage or silver screen.
He is one of those select few of American singer dancer actors to have worked closely with the legendary choreographer and director Bob Fosse, and the trademark Fosse style soundly resonates through Vereen with his every move.
His cabaret performance in Steppin' Out brings ample style and charisma to the Festival Theatre stage in a beautifully warm show where he talks about key moments that his life on stage has brought – he sings splendidly, and gently busts a few moves in the process. Although his dancing is not the main feature these days, that old soft shoe and tap continues to manifest as he simply walks from point A to point B. Vereen tells how he was in a car accident, had a heart attack and was hit by a car all on the same day (in 1992). He also shares how his Doctors told him he would be four years in recovery after that catastrophic day, but being the man he is, that advice didn't grab him enough to take the slow road.
In America his greatest impression was most likely left as Judas in 'Jesus Christ Superstar', and he presents a couple of highlights from that show, as well as 'Pippin' and 'Jelly's Last Jam' a some of the other shows that he has starred in.
Overall it was a real joy to see, although he wandered a little out of brief towards the end of the show, trying a little too hard suggesting "It's okay to cut education and health funding as long as the arts keep on keeping on because the arts are our civilizations culture..." it didn't offend, but it seemed a little misplaced despite his obviously positive intent.
The two act program was highly entertaining and reminded me of that period between the 1970s and the 1990s when jazz was still a very strong part of the standard repertoire of any great entertainer. Here in 2012 Vereen was literally bouncing back on the stage despite some obvious post accident limitations but we all know that true greatness comes from within, and that's no more evident than when Vereen starts sharing his love of life through song. A master vocal stylist, deftly proven by the way he sang "Over The Rainbow" accompanied by his son on skin drum. All together the show was as much an inspiration as it was an entertainment highlight.
Adelaide Cabaret Festival 2012
Steppin' Out with Ben Vereen
Venue: Festival Theatre
Date: 22 June 2012
Tickets: $109.90 – $44.90