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Vereen recalls a pip of a part

January 27, 2009|Greg Braxton

The entertainer outside the Mark Taper Forum wearing a black fedora and a black Barack Obama T-shirt Sunday night beamed, simultaneously celebrating the country's future while embracing his own past.

"Can't you feel it?" said Ben Vereen, fingering the white scarf draped around his Obama shirt. "It's like an out-of-body experience. You can feel the universe shift. I'm just so proud of President Obama and this country."

While Vereen was still ebullient after attending Obama's inauguration, it was nostalgia that brought him to the Taper for the opening of a new production of "Pippin," one of the musicals that helped launched his multifaceted career almost 40 years ago.

Vereen, 62, who had first scored on Broadway in 1972 as Judas in Tom O'Horgan's controversial staging of "Jesus Christ Superstar," won a Tony Award a year later for best actor in a musical for his role as Leading Player in the Stephen Schwartz musical. That show was also one of the hallmarks for choreographer Bob . Vereen was also one of the principal dancers for Fosse's intricate moves in such shows as "Sweet Charity" and in the film "All That Jazz."

He would move on to a varied career that included more Broadway ("Jelly's Last Jam"), film ("Funny Lady" and "Why Do Fools Fall in Love"), and television (earning an Emmy nomination for his role as the irrepressible Chicken George in the landmark 1977 miniseries "Roots").

And he still performs, touring now in a tribute to the music of one of his role models, Sammy Davis Jr., that is scheduled to hit Long Beach next month.

But "Pippin" holds an undeniably central spot in Vereen's heart. "Well, first of all, it got me a Tony," he said with a loud laugh that echoed outside the theater minutes before the opening night curtain. "It was also an honor to work with Bob Fosse. There was nothing more rewarding."

As Leading Player, Vereen was a volcanic force of nature, relentlessly dancing and prowling the stage as he joked and berated other characters while carrying out Fosse's sensual mix of traditional dance and lyrical limb twists. Commanding attention in a black tuxedo-like outfit, Vereen would be drenched in sweat within minutes of hitting the stage, and his performance overshadowed those of his cast mates.

"Fosse was a perfectionist, and I really wanted to do him proud," he said. Vereen was particularly fond of John Rubinstein, who played "Pippin" in the original cast: "We were like two sides of the same coin. We were in such harmony. Working with John was a complete joy."

Thinking back on his "Pippin" appeared to heighten Vereen's anticipation about seeing the new Taper version. But as he would later discover, he couldn't quite go home again.

The new production -- a partnership between the Center Theatre Group and Deaf West Theater -- bore little resemblance to the Fosse version. This was a reinvention, with an intimate staging and a combination of speaking and deaf performers. The Fosse influence was limited. And though the muscular Ty Taylor had his share of showy moments as the Leading Player -- he wore no shirt and a long red-and-black striped vest -- he took a more low-profile, less commanding approach than Vereen once did.

None of that kept Vereen from smiling throughout the performance. He was one of the first to leap to his feet during the curtain call.

Afterward, he heaped praise on the production and cast. "This is a fabulous new vision, and Ty is amazing." He avoided comparison.

"There's nothing to say about that," he said. "It's not my show. It's not my 'Pippin.' " He then excused himself to greet fans who saw him as Leading Player and wanted to share their memories.

Vereen smiled as he quietly told them, "You're so kind, you're so kind."

greg.braxton@latimes.com

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