Is there nothing that Ben Vereen can't handle with talent and grace?
By Gretchen Giles
Preparing to interview Ben Vereen is almost as much fun as actually speaking to the famous song and dance man, the one who epitomized choreographer Bob Fosse's male muse, who brought Kunte Kinte's grandson Chicken George to life in Roots, who swung with Sammy and the rest of the Pack in Las Vegas, who helped break Broadway's racial barrier in Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar and who considers himself a godfather to the rap artist Usher. Through the still-miraculous miracle of YouTube, Vereen's triumphs as a dancer remain vibrant, a recently screened clip from his first Tony Award turn in Pippin last week prompting another viewer to gush, "Ben owns this!"
Ben owns a lot, and none of it is mere stuff. Now nearing 63, Vereen remains a multigifted performer, as comfortable doing a sharp turn with a hat pushed seductively down over one eye as he is encouraging young people to grab their dreams and as he is extolling the virtues of the raw-food lifestyle or counseling diabetics on living, as he does, with the disease.
Reached in New York where he is working with a biographer on a new book, Vereen is happy and relaxed, classical music booming behind him in the apartment. He appears Aug. 22 at the Lincoln Theater in what is billed as "An Intimate Evening with Ben Vereen."
"I get to share with the people not only my show business life, but the journey I've taken," he explains in his familiar purr. "I've been in rooms with kings and queen and emperors and presidents. I went to China when Nixon broke down the wall." Expect a cabaret show that mixes a bit of dance with some Broadway song and plenty of stories, including some discussion of the life-threatening disease that Vereen battles with wisdom.
"I'm on insulin today—just for today," he says with the cadence of a 12-stepper. "My physician is trying to wean me off of insulin. The human ego is such a trip—oh no, that's not me." He chuckles before adopting an urgent tone meant for the masses. "Please go to your physician and join the land of the living."
Because his autobiography is in the works, Vereen keeps close to the vest many personal details about the spectacular ups and downs of his life. Toward other people's lives, however, he is immensely gracious. As the phone conversation ends, Ben Vereen says to the stranger interviewing him across coasts at 8pm his time, "Please give my love to your family." Consider it done.
"An Intimate Evening with Ben Vereen" is slated for Saturday, Aug. 22, at 8pm. Lincoln Theater, 100 California Drive, Yountville. $29–$59; veterans may qualify for free admission. 707.944.1300.
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