In referencing a career retrospective video that prefaced his “Steppin’ Out” performance last night at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville, Ben Vereen seemed almost apologetic. The opening turned back the years to when the singer/dancer/actor’s younger self was deftly moving and grooving in Broadway musicals, cabaret outings and even television programs.
“All that dancing and carrying on you saw there… there will be none of that tonight,” Vereen said later in the evening. Turned out that wasn’t much of an issue.
At age 70 and with back surgery just a few months behind him, Vereen had earned the right hold off on the hoofing. But that hardly meant the veteran performer settled for a subtle evening. Backed by a jazz trio, Vereen offered songs and stories as “gratitude” for audience support during his 50-plus year career in a performance that ran tirelessly for two hours without an intermission.
This newest version of “Steppin’ Out” is essentially a large scale cabaret show with equal measures of song and talk. But there were curious differences in the program and typical cabaret sets. Opening with “Magic to Do,” a signature tune from “Pippin,” which earned Vereen the second of his two Tony Awards, the set was surprisingly loose in design. But the rest of the show wasn’t entirely the kind of overview the opening video suggested. There were obvious nods to his Broadway tenure, from a medley of tunes featured in “Hair and “Jesus Christ Superstar” to an efficiently moving “Defying Gravity” from “Wicked,” which Vereen served in a decade ago. But some of the music and a lot of the talk strayed from his own career to broader streams of inspirations. Just one quick tale from his work with Bob Fosse? That seemed a bit of a crime, but Vereen seemed to connect with the crowd through stories of personal and professional survival. Guess we can add the title of motivational speaker to his extensive list of occupations.
The show highlight was entirely unexpected – a duet of “Misty” with drummer Marc DiCianni adding lone accompaniment mostly through hand percussion. In was a moment of reflective, reserved beauty in a show that displayed its emotions as openly and brightly as a Broadway marquee.