BWW Reviews: Entertainer Extraordinaire Sam Harris Presents 'Liter-usical' - Now That's Entertainment!
Riding the wave of enthusiasm for his newly released book "Ham: Slices of a Life," singer and entertainer extraordinaire Sam Harris played to a sold-out crowd at Feinstein's at the Nikko in San Francisco. They came expecting a great show and he did not disappoint. Calling his performance a "liter-usical," a combination of literary book tour and Broadway musical extravaganza, he alternated between reading juicy morsels (amuse-bouche, if you will) from his book with songs that served to highlight the chapters of his life.
God he's funny. And a total ham. He started the show appropriately enough with the chapter called "Ham," telling of his discomfiture with a child actor who was trying to upstage him during a run of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. This was followed by a hilarious story about his determination to play Helen Keller in a school production of "The Miracle Worker." Ham and chutzpah. Certainly not kosher, but effervescently, quintessentially Sam.
It was that blind determination that propelled him into the stratosphere 30 years ago when he was named Grand Champion of the 1980's talent show "Star Search" with Ed McMahon. Even though he'd been playing every LA dive bar between Santa Monica and Encino and slowly gaining a solid reputation (his fans were known as "Harrisites"), it wasn't until television audiences got a chance to hear his Aretha Franklin-like set of pipes that he struck gold.
And he struck gold with the Feinstein audience who ate up his performance like it was a well-glazed ham. Which it was. Sam belted his way through a medley of songs including "Don't Rain on my Parade," "Respect," and "Some People," his strong and vibrant voice filling the intimate setting with magic and pizazz.
Then he gave the audience a taste of the gospel music that had originally set him free, sharing the story of his first visit to an African-American church just 13 years after the Civil Rights Act had passed. It's not a stretch to see how a young man struggling with being gay would resonate with the marginalized African American community. There in that Sand Springs, Oklahoma church on the other side of the tracks, he found acceptance...and his voice. Harris is known for giving 150% in every song, but his heart and soul shone through with bright beauty when he broke into his high-energy gospel numbers. Songs like "I Feel, You Feel," "Wait 'Til My Change Comes" and "Revival" were delivered with full-bodied richness and absolute love. Every note he sang conveyed gratitude and a soul-deep understanding of the music. Sheer magic.
It was also a joy to watch musical director and pianist Todd Schroeder (an amazing artist in his own right) work his magic on the Steinway. He grooved with Sam from start to finish, flawlessly tuned in to the singer's method and tempo in a way that bespoke years of friendship and mutual appreciation. He also provided back-up vocals and well-timed voicings for a few of the people in Sam's book, adding immeasurably to the overall experience.
Not shying away from the hard chapters of his life, Sam read the sections of his book dealing with his attempted suicide and subsequent coming to terms with his homosexuality. His candor and fearless honesty brought tears to many eyes, providing poignant context for his rendition of the Dreamgirls classic "I am Changing." His voice celebrated his own resilience but also seemed to speak for the entire movement.
Harris closed with his now famous version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." That night it became an anthem about self-worth, dignity and daring greatly; his supple phrasing, raw honesty and magnetic appeal spontaneously bringing the room to their feet in wild applause. Now that's entertainment. Get the book. See his shows. Check out his YouTube videos. In short, become a "Harrisite."