Legendary performer Ben Vereen sang standards and songs from Broadway in his Rrazz Room show. Photos by Isak Tiner
Kick, kick, turn and SING! Ben Vereen does the cabaret thing
Toward the end of his exhilarating show at San Francisco’s gorgeous Rrazz Room, Ben Vereen was musing on the state of the world and trying to find something positive to say. He concluded that it’s not so much about our leaders but about us living good lives and taking care of each other.
“But what do I know?” he said. “I’m just some legendary star.”
Then he let loose with one of those chuckles, grinned that high-wattage Vereen grin and sang “If I Ruled the World.”
Vereen was making fun of himself…sort of. He is a legend and he knows it. He won a Tony Award in Pippin, and he’s been in shows ranging from Sweet Charity to Golden Boy to Grind to Wicked. He starred as “Chicken” George in the landmark TV series Roots, and he’s made memorable screen appearances in All That Jazz and Idlewild.
At 62, after some rocky patches involving a car accident and health problems, Vereen is back on stage and in fine form.
He’s currently touring with a tribute to Sammy Davis Jr. that requires an 18-piece orchestra, but he scaled things down for the Rrazz Room with his pianist/musical director Nelson Cole, bassist Tom Kennedy and drummer Marc Dicianni. But the thing about Vereen is that he’s a large-scale performer and brings theater-size pizzazz with him wherever he goes.
This was evident early in his 90-minute set with a medley of songs from Broadway shows he’s been in: “Corner of the Sky” from Pippin, “Aquarius” from Hair and “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and the title song from Jesus Christ Superstar. He even tackled “Memory” from Cats and gave it the full-on dramatic treatment then left us with a religious spin: in the last notes as the new day was dawning, he looked up and said, “Thank you, Father, thank you.”
Decked out in a black suit with red flourishes – a silky red scarf, a red stripe down the black tie, a flash of red around the black shirt collar – Vereen looks great and sounds good. He talked about his fond memories of San Francisco doing No Place to Be Somebody at the Off Broadway Theatre and going tribal in Hair at the Orpheum.
During his tribute to Frank Sinatra (which includes a “My Way” that Vereen somehow gets away with), Vereen sang “It Was a Very Good Year” and couldn’t resist the urge to dance. But looking at the rather confined space on stage, he said: “They said there would be room to dance” and chuckled. But he managed to move. And later in the show, during the Davis tribute’s rendition of “Hey There” from The Pajama Game, Vereen danced his way through the audience.
That Davis tribute really is the centerpiece of Vereen’s show, and it’s fantastic. Vereen and Davis worked together in Golden Boy, and it’s clear Vereen has great affection and admiration for Davis during such numbers as “Once in a Lifetime,” “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” and a reconfigured “Mr. Bojangles,” complete with black bowler hat, that refers directly to Davis.
Vereen’s duets with the individual members of his band were stellar. With Dicianni using his hands instead of sticks on his drum kit, he and Vereen performed a thrilling “Misty”; with Kennedy doing extraordinary things to his upright bass, Vereen gave “My Funny Valentine” new life; and with Kennedy’s sumptuous melodic support on piano, he sang “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” that managed to be funny and affecting.
Like the seasoned performer he is, Vereen can make a cabaret feel like an intimate exchange or the Act 1 finale of a Broadway show. He’s charming, funny and intense, and he makes a strong connection with his audience. But then again, what does he know? He’s just some legendary star.
Ben Vereen will sing the national anthem at the Oakland As baseball game against the Texas Rangers on Thursday, May 7th. Also on that day, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom has also declared Thursday, May 7th, “Take the Stage for Diabetes Awareness Day” in San Francisco and awarded Vereen a mayoral proclamation.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Ben Vereen performs through May 10 at the Rrazz Room in the Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason St., San Francisco. Shows are at 8 p.m. except for a special Mother’s Day show at 7 p.m. on Sunday, May 10. Tickets are $45-$50 plus a two-drink minimum. Call 866-468-3399 or visit www.therrazzroom.com for information.
Here’s an excerpt of Vereen performing “Magic to Do” and doing the Bob Fosse thing in Pippin (circa 1981):