BWW Review: Off-Broadway's Hit HAM Brings Mega-Talented SAM HARRIS to LGBT Hollywood for Three Weeks
HAM: A Musical Memoir/conceived, written and performed by Sam Harris//based on his book Ham: Slices of a Life/directed by Billy Porter & Ken Sawyer/musical direction by Todd Schroeder/choreographed by Lee Martino/LGBT, Renberg Theatre, Hollywood/through February 7 only
In his early days circa 1984, when he won 13 consecutive weeks on TV's Star Search, Sam Harris was flatly denied work on TV and in film because he was labeled "too theatrical". This quality - and I say quality - is what makes a performer exceptional; it sets him apart from the crowd, separating the men from the boys, so to speak. But casting people and agents frankly did not know what to do with him; his enormous talent defied categorization. He can sing, he can dance, he can act the bejesus out of a piece, injecting so much raw energy and passion into it that its substance literally leaps off the stage, directly into our hearts. Well, times did change. He has worked on television and on Broadway to great acclaim, and now he is back onstage once more with his autobiographical show HAM: A Musical Memoir for a limited run at the Renberg Theatre of LGBT, Hollywood through February 7 only.
Harris grew up in Sand Springs, Oklahoma, in the heart of Americana, and as a small child, he always knew he was different. He played a Polynesian child in South Pacific "Dites-Moi" and the black boy Percy in The Miracle Worker, but he wanted to play Helen Keller, and couldn't understand why they refused to let him audition for the role. He realized he was homosexual when he went away one summer to work in Nashville, Tennessee on Opryland and fell in love with a handsome young actor. It was difficult for him to return and face the reality of life - his father worked as a band teacher in the local school system and had wanted him to play baseball when the most he could become was 'waterboy'. So, one night, he took 30 seconal and tried to commit suicide, but something startling happened, that shook him out of his misery and half-consciousness. His younger brother stepped on a darning needle and Sam was forced, as drugged as he was, to comfort and care for him. This touching incident would later speak to Harris some more as he learned to care for and love, more than life itself, his own adopted son Cooper.
During his years in Hollywood, he wanted to become BIG, to make other performers envious of his talent, but during his checkered career he was plagued with alcoholism and doubts about himself, about his differences and his purpose in life. He thought he was sick and alone, and it took a reluctant visit to a school psychologist to convince him that "There is nothing wrong with you". He finally found happiness within himself and further happiness in his gay marriage to Danny Jacobsen, where they 'produced' a son of their own.
HAM: A Musical Memoir is structured with Harris reminiscing, singing and dancing throughout the 100-minute show. And with musical director extraordinaire Todd Schroeder at the piano, serving as his battering ram - he gets into the act, acting and singing right along with Harris - almost without ever leaving the piano bench. There's more energy onstage between these two men, than an entire team of baseball players. They are incredible. Brilliant choreographer Lee Martino lets Harris do a little shuffle or spin here and there, and director Ken Sawyer - Billy Porter directed the show off-Broadway a couple of years back - knows well enough to leave Harris alone, as he will come up with the moves that serve him best. Harris has composed one or two songs for the show. Up front there are "Open Book" and the title tune "Ham", co-written with Schroeder. And we are also treated to a bevy of snippets from standards like Anthony Newley's "Nothing Can Stop Me Now", "If He Walked Into My Life", "Don't Rain on My Parade", "Over the Rainbow", some nifty black gospel, and an original "Colored Town" co-written with Schroeder.
Harris sticks close to his book Ham: Slices of a Life throughout. His humor is always delicious as we learn of him almost dying at age three from choking on a sausage - oh, how that sausage would change his life forever, his obsession with Jews and blacks as tribes that spoke more naturally to him than his own...he adored them and wanted to be them. "That white boy sings like a fat black woman." There are also tender moments like the attempted suicide, the warm and glowing reflection of his attraction to the young actor at Opryland, his love and forgiveness of his father, and his deep love, parenting his own son Cooper. Within this show Harris runs the gamut of emotions form A to Z, and he pulls us right in, grabs hold and never lets go.
Go see HAM: A Musical Memoir! You will laugh, you will cry and simultaneously assist LGBT with their ongoing programs to help lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender groups and individuals, as a part of each ticket is a contribution. If you don't come away loving Sam Harris, as a performer and as an individual, I will eat my words.