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Ben Vereen talks career, current one-man show

LINDA ARMSTRONG Special to the AmNews | 7/30/2012, 11:57 a.m.
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When I think of a triple threat--a theater performer who has been entertaining audiences for over 40 years, someone who has a very distinctive look, style and vibe--I think of Ben Vereen. I remember seeing him on Broadway as the Wizard in "Wicked" and still recall how amazing, impressive and energized his performance was. Vereen has always been a total package.

Audiences now have a chance to see him performing live in his one-man show, "Steppin' Out with Ben Vereen" at 54 Below, a nightclub located at 254 W. 54th St. He will be performing his show through July 21 only.

The show consists of songs from Broadway shows including "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Wicked"; Frank Sinat ra songs; and classic numbers like "Mr. Bojangles," one of his signatures. At the beginning of his two-week run, which began last week, Vereen took the time to speak with the AmNews about his life and career.

AmNews: You've been an entertainer for some time. What first got you interested in it?

BV: Church! I had a boys' group, and we sang on street corners.

Where did you receive your training?

The High School of the Performing Arts. I had great teachers--Gertie and Rachel Yokum. I was in school with such greats as Michael Peters.

You came up in a time when entertainers were triple threats. How do you think that compares with entertainers of today?

When I was coming up, we would walk down Broadway with our borrowed pinstriped suits and worn-out fedoras--we thought you needed a passport to get from Brooklyn to Manhattan. The sounds of the city were our music: big band, early rock and Broadway. Gosh, do I love Broadway.

Today's youth have the advantage of technology; they are pounding the same streets as we did but with iPods around their necks dancing to the beat of the drummer, but a different one.

How did you choose the songs that you will be performing in the show?

I choose songs that I can storytell with--I choose songs that will entertain you, make you think.

What should audiences expect?

I don't know if I believe in expectations. I believe in the here and the now and what joy one can experience in a fabulous new Broadway club like 54 Below.

What do you want the audience to come away with?

I want them to be inspired, to make tomorrow a better day and to be generous of self. After all, it is only when we give that we get.

What does performing do for you?

Everything. If I can bring a smile to your face, it brings a smile to mine.

What other projects do you have coming up?

Ongoing concerts, lecture tours--I speak on overcoming adversity, the arts and education, Black history...I am a Trekkie and have been asked to participate in the giant "Star Trek" convention in Las Vegas next month and I can't wait.

Next season I am doing the play "Fetch Clay, Make Man," directed by the great Des McAnuff--I love him. We did the play at the McCarter Theatre two years ago and I can't wait to bring it to New York .

What advice would you give to young performers, whether they are striving for Broadway, movies or television?

Take classes, study the old and the new. If you want it, really want it, it's every day, all day.

How do you manage to sustain your level of energy?

Diet, exercise and every day I thank God for another day to get it right.

For more information about "Steppin' Out with Ben Vereen," visit www.54Below.com.