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Ben Vereen still passionate, exuberant, after nearly 50 years onstage

Louis Lanzano | AP
Louis Lanzano | AP
OCT. 13, 2011 FILE PHOTO.
By Emily Burnham, BDN Staff

Talking to Ben Vereen on the phone, you can hear his enthusiasm and spirit coming through the receiver — imagine what it would be like to see him live.

The singer, dancer and actor will make a special appearance at the Collins Center for the Arts in Orono this Saturday, Sept. 29, bringing his one-man show “Steppin’ Out With Vereen” to the stage.

It’s a one-man show that blends Vereen’s many talents with the music of Broadway and classic pop, including songs made famous by Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. (with whom Vereen worked in the late 1960s), and favorite show tunes, from “Defying Gravity,” “Wicked” and “Mr. Bojangles.”

Tickets to the 8 p.m. show are $48-$58, and are available online at collinscenterforthearts.org. The Bangor Daily News caught up with Vereen earlier this week.

Tell us about your solo show. What can we expect to see?

We’re blessed to be able to come to Maine and bring this show that we’re preparing for Broadway. It’s a tribute to all the showmen, all the people that have encouraged my life, and we take the audience on a wonderful journey. They get to see the essence of what I’m about. I do some classes with local kids when I’m on the road, talking about my project, Ben Vereen’s Oath to Excellent Through the Arts, which is all about preparing kids for the stage, and for life itself.

Of all the roles you’ve played on Broadway and around the world — do you have a favorite?

That’s like asking me which one of my children are my favorite! (laughs) They’re all sacred, and they’ve all taught me something. I’ve been privileged to be involved with some great artists over the years, though I always think back to my first job, which was “Prodigal Son,” written by Langston Hughes. It was in a church Off Broadway, and it was really the start for me. That first one always sticks with you. I’ve been blessed all around, between “Pippin” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” and all these wonderful opportunities. When I get on stage, it’s up to the audience to decide whether they like or don’t like. And it seems they like me, and I love them for it.”

Musical theater and dance are experiencing a real revival right now, between “Smash,” “Glee” and “Dancing With the Stars.” Any advice for young performers just starting out?

I say to them, “Do that, be that, but that’s not all that it is.” It’s wonderful to have that spark of creative energy and want to be involved in the arts. But it’s a business. You’ve got to understand all the different aspects of it. It’s the creative force that artists bring that gives show business life, and we like to paint the world rosy colors. We’re artists, and we just want to express ourselves. But you’ve got to be smart about it. I go around and try to teach people about being empowered and strong and confident, and that’s a huge part of it.

You’ve been through so much in your life, and yet you’re still such a formidable creative force. What keeps you going? What inspires you?

There was a song we used to sing in church that said, “Something within me, something I cannot explain, something that holds up the reins.” All I can say is that there’s something within me that has carried me through the ups and downs, and places of wonder in my life. I tell my students that no matter what you’re going through, whether you’re injured or whatever, you’ve got to show up. The universe wants to guide you back to your path. That’s how I live my life. Just make sure you show up.

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