'Broadway' comes to Farthing
Two of Broadway's brightest stars are aligning in Boone Friday, when Chita Rivera and Ben Vereen take the Farthing Auditorium stage for "Our Broadway."
Bringing Broadway to Boone isn't the easiest task, but Rivera and Vereen are up to the task, with the latter expecting nothing short of brilliance.
"You can expect wonderfulness, magnificentness," Vereen said. "I've got to step up to the bar with Chita Rivera on stage."
And there will be plenty of stepping. Rivera shot to stardom with her performance of Anita in the original Broadway production of "West Side Story," having since starred in other Tony Award-winning and nominated roles, including "The Rink" and "Kiss of the Spider Woman," along with numerous television and film credits.
Like Rivera, Vereen has performed on both stage and screen, most notably "Wicked," "Jesus Christ Superstar," "I'm Not Rappaport" and "Pippin," while also appearing on classic television series like "Star Trek: The Next Generation," "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" and "Zubilee Zoo."
But for Vereen, nothing comes close to performing with Rivera.
"Chita Rivera, my heart, my heart," he said. "I live and breathe Chita. She's amazing, and it's such a privilege to be on the same stage with that beautiful queen."
Rivera was just as complimentary.
"He's definitely one of a kind," she said. "I think we're both a perfect example of doing what we really love to do, and being allowed to do it for so many years. ... It's all about doing what you love and never giving up, no matter what age you are."
Although their upcoming performance will showcase songs and numbers from Broadway's golden age and beyond, Rivera promises a conversational quality that transports the audience to another time.
"It's songs and conversation about how fortunate (we've) been to have been a part of that golden age," she said, "and there were so many wonderful shows that I, fortunately, was a part of. I sing a lot of those songs, because so many great people I've worked with and I have so many wonderful, wonderful memories. So, I'm just sharing it."
Rivera and Vereen will perform together at the show's beginning, and then each will perform their own set, followed by another joint performance at the end. Rivera said to expect songs from "West Side Story," "Sweet Charity," "Bye Bye Birdie," "Chicago," "Seventh Heaven" and more.
"We'll see what happens," she said. "Ben's an old friend of mine, and he comes from that wonderful time."
It's a reunion to which both are looking forward.
"We did 'Chicago' together, and the first time I performed with Chita was a show called 'Sweet Charity,' years ago on the road when we first met back in 19..." Vereen said, not quite finishing the sentence. "Her professionalism, she always hit the mark, every time. It's amazing, she's such a professional, such an artist."
Rivera, who was born and raised in Washington, D.C., attributes her success to her instructor at the Jones-Hayward School of Ballet, Doris Jones.
"God bless Miss Jones," she said. "She was responsible for me doing anything. I really love her, because my mother put me in school because I was breaking up the house; I was a tomboy. She set me in the right direction. Miss Jones picked me up and taught me dedication and respect and technique and devotion."
It paid off when ballet master George Balanchine sent a talent scout to Jones-Hayward. The scout selected Rivera and another student to audition in New York City for a scholarship at Balanchine's School of American Ballet.
"That's what got me ... into New York," Rivera said, "and it went on from there. For many years, I was disappointed that I didn't join the company, but that was at the point where I decided I was going to go in another direction."
A friend suggested she audition for a Broadway show, and the rest is history.
Nine Tony nominations and two Best Leading Actress wins later, Rivera found herself at the receiving end of an entirely different type of award: The Presidential Medal of Freedom, which she accepted from President Barack Obama in August 2009.
"How about that?" she said. "I'm sitting there with all these amazing people, saying, 'What the heck was I doing here?' (The President) described what the medal was about, and I realized I had every right to be there - it's about dedicating to your work, not about anything else, but being a good example and loving what you do, breaking some molds."
Vereen has also broken molds, expanding his career from stage (nominated for a Tony for "Jesus Chris Superstar" and winning for "Pippin") to screen to classroom to all of the above.
"I'm working on ('Our Broadway') for Broadway, working on a few other shows, and I also do a lecture circuit, go to colleges, teach acting - it's more like acting therapy that I do," he said. "I also do lectures on overcoming adversity, arts in education, black history."
He's released a new album, "Ben Vereen Stepping Out," and is also a father of many - but not necessarily in the literal sense. His television roles have cast him as popular characters' fathers.
"I'm the father of LeVar Burton (in 'Star Trek: The Next Generation,') the father of Will Smith (in 'The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air') and the father of Wayne Brady (in 'How I Met Your Mother'), I get them all," said Vereen, who's also R&B star Usher's godfather."
But he's more than happy to return to the stage.
"It's live and organic," he said. "I'm there with you, you're there with me, we're breathing at the same time. That makes it very special."
"Our Broadway" with Chita Rivera and Ben Vereen hits the Farthing stage at 8 p.m. Friday, July 8. Tickets cost $28 for adults, $16 for students ages 6 through 18, $15 for Appalachian State University students and $10 for kids 5 and under. They're available online at http://www.appsummer.org, by phone at (800) 841-2787 or in person at the Farthing Auditorium box office, located at 733 Rivers St. on the ASU campus in Boone.