July 24, 2008 | A Broadway star shined a little light on some serious subjects while entertaining a packed house July 18 at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre.
Tony Award winner Ben Vereen, who starred in the musicals “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Pippin” as well as the TV miniseries “Roots,” saluted the sacrifices of the nation’s veterans and their families during his performance, a benefit for the University of Arkansas at Medical Sciences’ Psychiatric Research Institute. A portion of the proceeds from the event will go toward research into treating post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
Vereen shared with the audience, which included representatives from every branch of the U.S. military, his experience with traumatic brain injury, the result of an auto accident in 1992. Although he suffered a stroke and was struck by a car the same day as the accident, Vereen, 61, showed no signs of frailty as he danced and scampered across the stage.
Accompanied by a four-piece band, Vereen honored his Broadway roots with a variety of show tunes from hits like “Hair,” “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Cats.” He also paid tribute to his mentor, Sammy Davis Jr., during a clip from “The Mike Douglas Show” that featured a duet between the two. Vereen, who served as Davis’ understudy in “Golden Boy” on Broadway in 1964, then went into a medley of Davis tunes, including “For Once In My Life” and “A Lot Of Livin’ To Do.”
“You might feel overlooked, but I’m here to tell you…you’re very much appreciated,” said Vereen to the armed forces personnel before launching into a personalized version of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me.” “When you say my armed forces are in trouble, call on Ben Vereen, I’ll be there on the double,” he sang to thunderous applause. He concluded his performance with a musical tribute to the military, a number written by his guitarist Brian Nakagawa entitled “For These Things.”
Vereen’s visit to Little Rock included a dinner at the Capital Hotel the night before that was highlighted by a color guard procession featuring members of the U.S. Army, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard and Air Force. He also toured the John L. McClellan Veterans Hospital the following day, meeting with hospital personnel and patients to sign autographs and shares stories of recovery.