by DICK KEREKES
Times they are a changing. Have you noticed the changes in the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra? Oh, sure they still do what they what they have always done the best, classical music but have introduced a variety of programs and types of music to reach out to new audiences. In the past year, we have heard tributes to the Beatles, and the Eagles. We saw a joint effort between the symphony and the Alhambra Dinner Theatre to stage musicals like Music Man and West Side Story like we have never seen them performed.
Last weekend Ben Vereen performed with the JSO and the audience left knowing why Mr. Vereen is an Entertainment Legend and has been a star for the past 40 years, on the stage and television.
Vereen opened the first half of the show dressed in gray pin stripped suit that looked like a choir robe. He topped it off with a white scarf. After the intermission Vereen wore a snazzy black tux, with an extra long jacket, a black silk shirt with a red collar and bright red tie. Ever present was a single silver earring dangling from his left ear.
The first half was a potpourri of his favorite songs including numbers from Broadway musicals he has appeared in including West Side Story, Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar and the musical he won the Tony for Best Actor in a Musical, Pippin’. I especially liked his Frank Sinatra tribute which included some of my favorite Sinatra songs such as “Lady is a Tramp”, “Come Fly with Me”, “Chicago”, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin, to name a few. He closed out this session with a special arrangement of “My Way” and Vereen did it his way, in a very unique style.
After a brief intermission, Ben sang Sammy as promised; of course I mean the one and only Sammy Davis Jr. He did not try to impersonate Davis, but presented his own special arrangements in that fit his own style of singing. While most songs featured the full orchestra, conducted by Nelson Kole on the keyboard, Vereen did a remarkable “My Funny Valentine” with only the bass playing.
Those of you, who remember Sammy Davis, recall he was a dynamo on stage, always moving and dancing. Vereen strutted and danced as well, using the full length of the stage to explore those great songs like, “Mr. Bojangles”, “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.”, “Hey There”, some of my favorites. He finished up with “What Kind of Fool Am I?” and the inspiring “I’ve Got to be Me”.
It was not all music; Vereen is a great story teller and related several show business moments and how he was inspired by Sammy Davis Jr to become an entertainer. During the second half, he acknowledged the presence in the first row of the widow of Nat King Cole who apparently now lives in Jacksonville.
If you weren’t a fan of Ben Vereen when the show started, you definitely were at the end. The man is dynamic, and at 64 years of age, has the energy of a 30 year old. He performed for a full two hours at full speed most of the time, which was amazing considering that in l992 he was hit by an automobile, had a stroke and was in rehab for over 10 months. Vereen does a lot of symphony dates now and he praised Jacksonville for supporting the JSO in a time when he has seen a number of orchestra’s go out of business.
If you missed this concert you missed a good one, but the future looks bright as the Jacksonville Symphony has put out their schedule for next season and it has some wonderful musical adventures planned. Check the it at jaxsymphony.org. Check out Ben Vereen in the movies in an upcoming independent film 21 and Wake Up and the soon to be released Fox feature Mama I Want to Sing in which Ben co-stars opposite Ciara and Pattie Labelle.
Thanks JSO for making it possible for me to see and hear one a most talent performers and one of the true good guys in the world of show business, Ben Vereen.
Ben Vereen Sang Sammy
by DICK KEREKES