We’ve got magic to do,” sings Ben Vereen near the top of his new act at Feinstein’s, reprising the opening number from his Tony-winning turn in 1972 musical “Pippin.” There’s still some magic in the old boy yet, but Vereen’s hard-working cabaret turn is more energetic than convincing.
“I don’t want anyone leaving tonight and saying, ‘Hey, I saw Nipsey Russell,’ ” Vereen jests early on. But that sentiment is not so far-fetched. The ravages of time and illness have weathered the features of the once-sprightly dancer, and he has developed a commanding and entertaining comedic style not unlike the late Russell’s.
When he goes into “Maybe This Time,” he advises us, “If I sing well, my name is Ben Vereen. And if not — Usher.”
This comedic flair helps a great deal in moving the act along. The 60-year-old Vereen still has a singing voice, but he’s lacking the strength and command of his earlier days.
The actor underwent a long and difficult comeback after being hit by a car in 1992, with multiple injuries compounded by a stroke. By 1995 he was back on Broadway, although his days as a Fosse-style dancing star were gone. He appeared opposite Judd Hirsch in the 2002 revival of “I’m Not Rappaport” and more recently as a replacement wizard in “Wicked.”
Act is formatted as “An Intimate Evening With Ben Vereen,” but it is a loose, ragtag affair. Vereen goes through his early experiences in “Hair,” “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Pippin,” after which the biographical theme disappears. (He does tell us that over the decades, “I have been colored, Negro, black and now African-American. People — I’m from Brooklyn!”)
Vereen eventually works his way around to a tribute to Sammy Davis, with the best work of the night on “Once in a Lifetime” and “Mr. Bojangles.” He also does a somewhat extraneous Frank Sinatra set, with less success. “Misty” is nice, with a solo accompaniment by percussionist Obed Calvaire with soft mallets. Then comes “My Funny Valentine,” with (only) Mike Boone on bass, which would be more impressive were it not preceded by the other solo.
End of the overlong act was dampened by Vereen delving into politics a little too heavily, even if you agree with his views. Encore was “A Cockeyed Optimist,” which somehow ended with the phrase “God bless America.”