BWW Reviews: Ben Vereen's STEPPIN' OUT at 54 Below Entertains with Ease
Simply hearing the name Ben Vereen uttered invokes the magic and allure of Broadway. From originating key roles in Jesus Christ Superstar and Pippin to being a notable replacement in shows like Jelly's Last Jam and Wicked, Vereen has called the stages of Broadway home for years. Therefore, it is no surprise that he commands an audience with charm and pizzazz, easily entertaining a full house at 54 Below with his new cabaret show Steppin' Out.
Known as "Broadway's Living Room," Vereen welcomes the audience into the space, calls us his family, and regales us with his indefatigable charisma, his ability to tell a story, and his uplifting vocals. In the show, he takes us on a whirlwind ride through both his career and favorite singers. Naturally, the show opens with "Magic to Do" (Stephen Schwartz), which allows him to play with the audience, wag his fingers, and dance around. Vereen may be 68, but with his spirit and energy he is a walking billboard for the slogan "Age is nothing but a number."
Vocally, Vereen is doing a lot more talk-singing than audiences may remember him doing previously. Yet, he works this inescapable aspect of aging in his favor. He keenly makes the most of the breathy, airy quality of his voice to forgo the traditional phrasing of well-known songs like "Getting to Know You" (Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II), "Defying Gravity" (Stephen Schwartz) "My Way" (Paul Anka, Claude François, Jacques Revaux, Gilles Thibault), and "Misty" (Erroll Garner). Instead, we get these tunes reimagined through the mind of Vereen, and each number becomes his own. Also, the current timbre of his instrument makes it all the more impressive when he belts and holds notes out.
For me, there are two moments in the evening that stand out above the rest. The first was his take on songs from his career. Having been too young to see Vereen mint his star on Broadway, I was taken by his tales of auditioning for and working with legends like Bob Fosse and Andrew Lloyd Webber between hearing him perform a cheerful rendition of "Corner of the Sky" (Stephen Schwartz) and ripping though a rollicking, fever dream-like medley of "Aquarius" (Galt MacDermot, James Rado, Gerome Ragni), "Hair" (Galt MacDermot, James Rado, Gerome Ragni), "Heaven On Their Minds" (Andrew Lloyd Webber, Tim Rice), "I Don't Know How to Love Him" (Andrew Lloyd Webber, Tim Rice), and "Superstar" (Andrew Lloyd Webber, Tim Rice). The other standout was his soulful and lovely take on "Stand By Me" (Ben E. King, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller), in which he repurposed the titular phrase to say "Stand by the arts," reminding the audience that humanity and civilization are nothing without the arts.
For some of us it is a rare treat to get to see Vereen take the stage, while others have seen him countless times. No matter what side of the equation each member of the audience falls on, with Steppin' Out Ben Vereen showcases what made him a star and fully gives commanding performances that leave people exclaiming "He's still got it!"