Question: What actor played Lou Smith, father of Will Smith in Fresh Prince of Bel Air (a clip on YouTube with Smith and this actor has been viewed at least 4.2 million times), Geordi la Forge’s father Dr. Edward La Forge in Star Trek Next Generation, Emmanuel Lewis’ father Paul in Lost in London, Wayne Brady’s Dad Sam Gibbs in How I Met Your Mother and Carl, Chris Rock’s father in Top Five (2014)?
Answer: The very same singing, acting, dancing Ben Vereen.
Much of the enthusiastic Landmark audience would have agreed with these “Hollywood” casting decisions.
Vereen inherited these roles after earlier work that ranged from Jesus Christ Superstar to Hair. Some admirers of his career are especially fond of his role alongside Jeff Goldblum in what Amazon‘s snip calls a beloved cult classic, Tenspeed and Brown Shoe, a standout show remembered for its wit and crisp dialog.
Last weekend Ben Vereen made his first appearance at the Landmark.
Few careers enjoy a straight line from obscurity to enduring success, and Vereen’s is no exception. In 1987, his daughter Naja flew back to New Jersey from visiting her father in California. In a freak accident that occurred when her mother was driving her home from the airport, she was killed in when giant rolls of paper shifted inside a tractor-trailer and caused it to topple onto their vehicle. Perhaps in the accident’s aftermath, Vereen told HuffPost, he sought treatment for a cocaine addiction. Then in 1992 his vehicle struck a tree, causing a hidden injury, then later the same day he was struck by an SUV and thrown 130 feet.
Surprisingly, on this Long Island evening, Vereen was keen to mention the man who struck him, David Foster. He credits Foster with saving his life by phoning 911 and staying with him after the accident. But he wasn’t finished thanking. Next he credited staff at the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation for a comparatively rapid recovery after his critical injuries. Then he thanked the producers of Jelly’s Last Jam who essentially promised him a role in their Broadway production opposite Gregory Hines if he could recover in time – even though he received the invitation in the show’s audience wearing a neck brace and barely able to move.
Was his recovery complete? Well, in 2012, he received the Broadwayworld.com Cabaret Award for Best Celebrity Male Vocalist on the basis of his engagement at 54 Below. This evening’s show was further confirmation.
Ben Vereen on “The Muppets” (Walt Disney Studios via YouTube)
Story, Song and a Little Soft-shoe
The evening featured Vereen’s concert act, “Steppin’ Out with Ben Vereen,” supported by a capable trio. The three consisted of two longtime Vereen collaborators Marc Dicciani @mdicciani on percussion and Thomas Kennedy (introduced by Vereen as “Pope of the bass”) @tomkennedymusic with newcomer Mark Soskin @marksoskin covering important duties on Landmark’s Steinway.
Vereen, dressed in black shirt, black tie, gray suit and blue tennis shoes, started off with the ultra-appropriate opener “Magic To Do” from Pippin. From there he took his audience on a tour that included songs from Wicked, Pippin, Jesus Christ Superstar, Hair (all of which he starred in), a Frank Sinatra set, and songs in fond tribute to mentor Sammy Davis, Jr.
The best part of the evening, musically speaking, arrived when Vereen paired with each member of the trio. Not only did this allow the singer duty-sharing luxury of a duet, but the discipline of working closely with the instrumentalists brought out Vereen’s best musical instincts. After a pleasant improv with Soskin, he performed “Misty” with percussionist Dicciani. Dicciani truly shone here, eschewing sticks for most of the solos while shaping a delicious and varied accompaniment. For the duet with bassist Kennedy, the musicians chose Elton John’s “Your Song.” Kennedy is a proficient jazz bassist, raising that oversized acoustic instrument up from its customary secondary role to take the audience on some brief but truly melodic side trips. (He, like Dicciani, breezed through the evening without a score.)
In a partly autobiographical show, a performer walks a thin line between self-promotion and shared reminiscence. Just how Vereen pulls this off is part Vereen, part audience. Vereen himself seemed to sense this. How else could a performer, after complimenting the town for supporting the venue on the Landmark’s twentieth anniversary, persuade an audience to sing “Port Washington, Stand by Your Arts” to the tune of Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me” [AnnReviews.com: King at Landmark in 2011]?
“He has the actor’s ability to induce an emotional response” explained critic Richard Connema, who also noted that Vereen’s stage storytelling “never glorified himself.” So it was on this occasion, with Vereen’s stories of being directed by a Camel-wielding Bob Fosse, of correcting a chord played by Andrew Lloyd Webber – even of the near-miss had not a Brooklyn principal suggested he attend Manhattan’s High School for the Performing Arts.
Early in the show Vereen sang the lyric, “. . . to be loved by you,” but later urged while leading a sing-along of the O’Jays classic “Love Train” that the greater inspiration is agape love.
Perhaps not. Whether Vereen’s occasional “Gravity-Defying” Sprechstimme interspersed with pitch-perfect singing inspired imitation in this audience is anyone’s guess, though when Vereen put a mic to several audience members it did seem to be catching on. What it did inspire was familial pride.
Ben Vereen’s heartfelt, father-role-inducing love touched many a newly reconnected family member. We beamed at his many successes the evening reprised. Which he persuaded us that we must have somehow made possible.
Next Up at Landmark
The next show in Landmark’s “Dim the Lights” series will be Pasek and Paul & Friends on April 25, 2015. Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are the Tony-nominated songwriters of Broadway’s A Christmas Story, The Musical.