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THEATER REVIEW

Vereen, Uggams Team Up for Uplifting 'On Broadway!'

March 18, 1997|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"An opportunity to thank all the people who prayed for me" is the way Ben Vereen describes his concert tour "On Broadway!," with Leslie Uggams. And Vereen's performance Sunday night at the Wiltern Theatre, a climactic event in the 42-city excursion, did indeed have the feeling of reaching out and touching the audience, both musically and emotionally.

It's been nearly five years since Vereen was seriously injured when he was struck by a truck while walking on Pacific Coast Highway. A year later, he returned to the Broadway stage in "Jelly's Last Jam," a performance that became a critical triumph. But, as Vereen reported several times in his portion of the program Sunday night, he is convinced that he prevailed not just because of sophisticated medical technology, but because "a lady in Mississippi, and a lot of people in other places, said a prayer for me."

Whatever motivation lay behind his performance, it was superb. Vereen has always been a powerful dancer and actor with an appealing voice. He now has developed even better musical skills to combine with his sterling ability to sell a song with dramatic intelligence and subtle but effective body control.

He opened his portion of the show with a few selections from his better-known Broadway performances: "Jesus Christ, Superstar," "Hair" and "Pippin." Interestingly, his rendering of "I Don't Know How to Love Him," which is sung by the Mary Magdalene character in "Jesus Christ, Superstar," brought a very different, very tender slant to the song. And he performed "I Dreamed a Dream" from "Les Miserables" as a set piece, in which he assumed the role of an old man looking back on his life. It was a very moving little vignette.

Vereen also was generous with his musicians, giving trombonist Mike Fahn a showcase opportunity to solo in the course of a voice-trombone duet on "Misty." And he concluded his set with a fervent plea for support of the arts in a stirring romp through "Stand by Me," in which he occasionally altered the lyrics to "Stand by the arts." Vereen's final, most telling impact came when he summed up his advocacy with the statement that "a country without arts is a country without culture; a country without culture is a country without identity."

Uggams, opening the show, was elegant and effervescent. Intermixing songs and patter, she described the thrill of performing as a young artist on the same stages with Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington. Appropriately, she tossed in her own buoyant version of "A Tisket, a Tasket."

Uggams was most entrancing with a lovely Gershwin medley, highlighted by a soaring interpretation of "Summertime." The only problem with her otherwise attractive performance was a tendency to extend her phrasing with long, distracting, vibrato-heavy notes. But it was a minor flaw in an engaging evening of music from two compelling artists.

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