Ben Vereen stars as "The Genie" in the Pasadena Playhouse production, 'Aladdin and His Winter Wish'

Ben Vereen stars as “The Genie” in the Pasadena Playhouse production, ‘Aladdin and His Winter Wish’

*It’s about one o’clock in the afternoon in Pasadena, California, and EURweb writer, DeBorah B. Pryor has been invited to the actor’s rehearsal for the upcoming theatrical production of “Aladdin and His Winter Wish,” which opens on December 11 at The Pasadena Playhouse. They are using an old bank building as a rehearsal space. Seriously, there are “vaults” with those heavy iron doors being used by the reporters to interview the actors. My mind automatically goes to the fearful thought of being locked in if that vault door accidentally closes and I’m thrilled when pointed in the direction of a real room instead. It’s pretty incredible though, a great environment!

But I’m trying to be inconspicuous and out-of-the-way right now, as the actors warm up for rehearsal with stretching exercises, dancing, playing around with each other, and laughing. The crew is calling out different directions; telling the actors what time lunch will be today; what scenes they will rehearse. At this time, things are being held up to wait for Disney to show up with their film crew; which is important today because the actors are purposely not mic’d, but with the right equipment, good video and audio can be captured. I got great video with my iPad mini, but the audio sucks.

As I’m standing there looking around I decide to turn my attention to the right and notice  “a brother” standing next to me wearing this really cool Michael Jackson jacket – you know, the one from the “Dangerous Tour” that’s real colorful, showing only MJ’s eyes? He’s also wearing his “Uppity Negro” cap to the back, baggy pants and has a nice, closely shaved, gray beard. I guess I wasn’t really looking at his face (maybe he wasn’t facing me directly, but then all of a sudden I realize its Ben Vereen.

OMG. Maybe my mind was expecting him to look differently, because I did not expect to see the legendary entertainer looking like this: Cool, young (he’s 66 but has the “feel” of 40) and spirited! I automatically embrace him and say, “I’m here for you.” He seems really genuine when he responds, “Really? Thank you.”

You notice immediately the difference between someone like Ben Vereen and his younger cast mates. Not in the way of energy, because he has plenty of that, but his sense of discipline is different. I recognize that while the others are casually having fun and playing around; he disappears (I don’t know where he went, but I suspect he was somewhere running lines or focusing on his monologue in a quieter space).

The production is an updated version of the classic Arabian Nights tale, in the style of a traditional British family Panto. Now don’t picture your grandma’s “pantomime” here; nor the brilliance of a Marcel Marceau (now there’s a name for you youngsters to Google!) Instead, picture Ben Vereen (who plays The Genie) cajoling with Aladdin (played by cute young actor Jordan Fisher of Disney’s Teen Beach movie), as he demonstrates the dreams that await Aladdin if he opens up his mind and believes in his greatest fantasies. And all while The Genie sings to the music of “Fantasy” by Earth, Wind & Fire. Panto is known for its interactive style and humor that appeals to people aged 2 – 102!

The scene is truly a sight to behold.

This is Ben’s first time doing a Christmas presentation in Los Angeles and he’s excited to be part of the cast.

“Lythgoe was kind enough to ask me to do Aladdin with them this year, and I looked at my calendar. I had the time off and I said I’d love to,” he says, after we find a quiet room to talk. “It gives me a chance to bring the spirit of Christmas to the young people. You know, we’re so inundated with materialism…with getting this and getting that and gotta have this and we’re forgetting the essence of what Christmas is all about.”

Lythgoe Family Productions produces fun, musical theatre the whole family can enjoy. Known for their creativity and involvement in television hits such as “American Idol” and “So You Think You Can Dance,” the Lythgoe’s bring affordable theatre to families across America. Based on the Grimm fairy tales, each story has been modernized with topical scripts for parents and well known pop songs for kids.

Vereen sees this as his chance to give of himself to the young people. “Let’s laugh. Let’s have a good time. Let’s fantasize,” he adds – eyes wide and smile bright.

As we chat, I let him know how happy it makes me to be able to genuinely say how well he looks; especially because I know that he has been living with type II diabetes since he was diagnosed in December of 2007. He turns serious.

“It’s the getting through the getting through part that sometimes gets us hung up…My higher power…has allowed me to be here talking to this queen today,” he continues (I blush).

In an interview with The Huffington Post he described his feelings after hearing the news.

“It’s not our fault, it’s just that people are not informed enough to know what to do or how to talk to their doctors, or what questions to ask — I didn’t know myself,” Ben said. “I called Sanofi and told them that I wanted to help do something about this. We developed a movement and created a website called ‘Take Control of Your Diabetes.’”

“I’m trying to find a new way to enter the schools with this. To make the kids with type I diabetes the heroes…If we follow the regimen, not of taking the medicine [but] of eating the proper foods, exercising, I think we’d have a healthier country. So I’m pushing for that and getting people just to be aware that there by the grace, it can happen to anyone. If it could happen to me, because here I am…a singer, a dancer, an actor and it happened to me, so I want to get out there and say something about it,” the Tony-award winner states.

Vereen makes a point to reiterate that although the disease can be hereditary, it can stop with you. “If you’re on medication, take your medication. But to prevent it, eat right and exercise,” he stresses.

During our talk I think about all the times we assume that just because we don’t actually see an entertainer this means they are not working; that they are probably somewhere just being unemployed.

If you think that about Ben Vereen, you’d be dead wrong. 

“Well, I just did an NCIS [episode] that will be on December 18, and I did How I Met Your Mother and I’ve been on tour with my show, ‘Stepping Out Live’ around the country; as well as doing lectures,” offers Vereen (and I still get the impression he’s holding back.)

Vereen laughs as he thinks about actors always being asked the question, “So what are you doing next” and always feeling they have to exaggerate with this long list of projects (mimics the voice ‘Oh, I’m working on a million things’). This makes him think of something that happened when he ran into another legend, old friend and colleague, the late Sammy Davis, Jr.

“When I was with Sammy Davis, I’ll never forget he was doing Mod Squad…we had just finished doing ‘Golden Boy’ in Europe. I came back to the United States and I was in Los Angeles…so I went to see him and I was watching him shoot the Mod Squad. He came over and he said, ‘Ben, what are you doing?’ and I said, ‘Oh yeah, I’m doing a lot of things, and so and so’ (and Davis interjects) ‘You’re unemployed aren’t you?’ and I said (imitating a very meek voice) ‘Yes’.”

But the incredible Sammy Davis didn’t stop there. He told an unemployed Ben Vereen to come down to Las Vegas, where he had a show up and put him in the cast. Just like that. Ben says that is what he loved about Sammy.

Next Ben will be headed to Phoenix to sing the national anthem for his alma mater, University of Arizona at their game with The University of Phoenix. He says he’ll “hang out in Sedona” for a while before going to New York to work on his next project – which he is not at liberty to talk much about. But I did learn that it has some “very interesting people involved.”

Aladdin and His Winter Wish” is a singing, swinging and soaring adventure that features family-friendly magic, with a comedic twist, dancing (with “So You Think You Can Dance” alumni), a live pony and contemporary music from “Jai Ho” (Slumdog Millionaire) to “Treasure” (Bruno Mars) and many more.

The lively cast also stars Ashley Argota (Nickelodeon’s True Jackson VP), Richard Karn (“Home Improvement”), and Bruce Vilanch (Edna in Broadway /Los Angeles productions of Hairspray), and also includes Josh Adamson (US and UK Tours of “Peter Pan”) and Ben Giroux (Nickelodeon’s Bucket & Skinner’s Epic Adventures).

Returning from a previous Pasadena Playhouse production is director Bonnie Lythgoe (So You Think You Can Dance), choreographer Spencer Liff (Emmy nominee So You Think You Can Dance) and musical director Michael Orland (American Idol).

ALADDIN AND HIS WINTER WISH will play from December 11 – 29, 2013.  Tickets are available by calling The Pasadena Playhouse at 626-356-7529, online 24 hours a day at www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org, or by visiting The Pasadena Playhouse Box Office at 39 South El Molino Avenue, Pasadena

ben vereen & deborah pryor

Ben Vereen & DeBorah B. Pryor

DeBorah B. Pryor is a Los Angeles based writer and entrepreneur. She teaches public speaking at UCLA Extension and by appointment for private consultation. She is also an independent associate with LegalShield; where she helps people secure quality legal services and representation without worrying about costs. Visit her website at dpryorpresents.com