Joe DiMaggio used to be introduced as "the greatest living baseball player." In my mind, Ben Vereen is the greatest living stage performer. It's time to paniolo-up, Maui, whip out that credit card and make a phone call, because the most important performance you can see on the island in 2012 happens next Friday, Jan. 27, at the MACC.
About 20 people have asked me over the past few weeks, "How old is he?"
Ironically half of those people are older than Vereen. In reality, Vereen is barely at normal retirement age, but because of teenage fame and the fact that he has been performing on Broadway for the past 40 years, people have a misconception of his age.
Ben Vereen presents “From Brooklyn to Broadway” at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 27. Tickets are $12, $37, $47, plus applicable fees. To purchase, visit the MACC box office, call 242-7469 or order online at mauiarts.org.
I could probably fill the entire Maui Scene with his resume (his press pack bio is 17 pages). Vereen attend New York's Fiorello LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and the Performing Arts where his guest dance instructors included George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins.
His first professional choreographer was Martha Graham in 1965, and in 1967 he was cast by Bob Fosse for the national tour of "Sweet Charity," as well as the film version with Shirley MacLaine, also directed by Fosse. In 1968 he was chosen by Sammy Davis, Jr. to be his understudy for an international tour of "Golden Boy," and immediately following that tour, he was cast in "Hair."
Next came originating the role of Judas in Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Jesus Christ Superstar," for which he received his first Tony Award nomination at the age of 24. The very next season, he won the Tony for Best Actor in a Musical in Fosse's "Pippin," for many, Vereen's signature role.
Vereen has gone on to be nominated for three Emmys and two Golden Globes, most notably for his role of Chicken George in perhaps the greatest television production of all time, Alex Haley's "Roots," celebrating its 35th anniversary this year. Vereen appeared with several cast members for a reunion hosted by Oprah Winfrey on the OWN network just last week.
After being hit by a car in 1988 while walking, Vereen's dancing career appeared to be over, but after years of therapy he returned to Broadway in 1992 in "Jelly's Last Jam."
Subsequent Broadway roles include Billy Flynn in the revival of "Chicago"; featured performer alongside fellow Fosse alum Ann Reinking in the Tony Award-winning "Fosse"; and as the Wizard in the Tony Award-winning megahit "Wicked."
I recently had the honor of interviewing Mr. Vereen and asked him what Maui audiences can expect from his one- man, one-night-only performance.
"First I want to say thank you to Maui for having me. I'm working on a new show called 'Tenacity' that I'll be bringing to Broadway. It will be a night of the music, dance, the songs and stories from my entire career, from Brooklyn to Broadway."
Vereen went on to say that he will be doing a tribute to friend and mentor Sammy Davis Jr.
"He's a hero, he paved the road for me to have success, without the obstacles he had to face."
When asked if he had a favorite show in his illustrious career, he replied, "Yes, it's called employment -still being employed in the theater and being able share my experiences in the school of life with an audience, especially young people."
Young people might know Vereen better as the former host of the children's show "Zoobilee Zoo," from the late '80s. I asked him about the accident and how it affected his career.
"The support of fans was amazing, I received thousands of letters from all over the world. Yes, my therapists and doctors were amazing, too, but it was faith and prayer that helped the most. It made me ask, 'Who am I?' I was a new creature trying to put on an old suit. You know, you can't cure anything but a ham. I just can't do things the same, so I have to do them differently, and that's OK."
We talked about "Roots" and the 35th anniversary as well. He seemed truly blown away by its never-ending popularity.
"Here it is 35 years later and everywhere I go, we're still talking about 'Roots'! I guess I have to give ABC props for even airing it; they had just done a miniseries called 'Rich Man, Poor Man,' and it flopped. If it ('Roots') wasn't already in the can, I don't think it would have been completed. So they aired it, and it just exploded.
"We didn't know about any of this when I was in school. I think there was one paragraph about slavery. Now we have Mr. Haley's story to understand who we are as a people. I'd like to think that like the story of Joseph's brothers, their bad intention was God's good intention."
Don't miss this once-in-a-life opportunity to spend an evening with a living legend.
Kumu Kahua Theatre presents "A Jivebomber's Christmas," Friday and Saturday in McCoy Studio Theater at the MACC. The play is set in a World War II relocation camp for Japanese-Americans. Despite its grim setting, the upbeat plot follows a group of young internees as they rehearse a Christmas variety show, being held to keep their spirits up amidst the camp's destitution.
Written by Saachiko and Dom Magwili, the play was first produced in 1993 at Los Angeles' Japanese American National Museum, where it has become an annual holiday tradition. "A Jivebomber's Christmas" is filled with traditional Christmas carols, popular music from the 1940s, dance, humor and sentiment. It is a warm, nostalgic, lighthearted play.
* Performances are 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. General admission tickets are $22 (plus applicable fees), available from the MACC as above.
Steve-O of "Jackass" fame is coming to Maui Saturday night to perform an evening of stand-up comedy and daring stunts with "Steve-O's Entirely Too Much Information Tour." "If you're shy, you might want to steer clear of the front rows," says the controversial performer. The stand-up portion of his show will feature many of the true-life experiences documented in his new book, "Professional Idiot: A Memoir." Local comics Ed Ka'ahea and Chino LaForge, join Steve-O in what is sure to be a memorable event.
* The show is at 8 p.m. Saturday at Ocean's Beach Bar and Grill in Kihei. Tickets are $35. Advance purchase is required, with tickets available online at hightide concerts.net or at Ocean's Beach Bar and Grill, Westside Vibes in Lahaina, and Bounty Music in Kahului.
A Storytelling Festival comes to the MACC at 3 p.m. Sunday. Enjoy a free outdoor storytelling performance of "Maui, Hina & Ka Hana Kapa." One of the many legends of Hawaii is about Maui, the demigod, lassoing the sun to slow its path across the sky so his mother Hina's kapa could dry. This particular version of the legend will be performed in chant, dance and the art of storytelling. Enjoy the performance on the lawn under the swaying palm trees.