by; Brian Scott Lipton
A quick caveat about “Ham: Slices of a Life,” Tony Award nominee Sam Harris’ unusual “literusical,” now premiering at 54 Below. That still glorious voice, which first came to prominence in 1983 on TV’s “Star Search,” is primarily used for reading excerpts from his just-published memoir of the same name. Meanwhile, his blow-the-roof-off singing makes up only about a quarter of the show. (A bit more music will be heard on Friday and Saturday, when Harris does a slightly extended version of the act).
But here’s the good news – the very good news – Harris is such a marvelously engaging storyteller that you’ll be enraptured by every word that comes out of his mouth. With a fine eye for detail and actor’s expressiveness, Harris paints wonderfully vivid portraits of various episodes of his life. He captures all the confusion of growing up “different”—and ridiculously talented – in the small town of Sand Spring, Oklahoma; the pain of acknowledging and admitting his homosexuality; his introduction to the joy of gospel singing in a nearby church; the humiliation of being fired from his first, sparsely attended club gig in Los Angeles because his loud singing disturbed the patrons in an adjacent relationship, and many more intimate, touching, and downright hilarious true tales.
In fact, the show gets off on precisely the right foot as Harris relates, with self-deprecating charm, his encounter with a particularly hammy child actor performing alongside him in the tour of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” followed directly by a clever original song “Open Book” that lays out the journey ahead.
While one may wish for more music, the few tunes Harris does deliver are, in the words of Spencer Tracy, “cherce.” There’s an endearing medley of the songs the young Harris played in his childhood room, ranging from Broadway standards like “Don’t Rain on My Parade” and “If He Walked Into My Life” to pop hits like “Respect” and “Everything Is Alright.” He brings his patented song-and-dance flair to Randy Newman’s “Lonely at the Top” and he finishes the show with a remarkable rendition of “I Am Changing” (“Dreamgirls”) – which is the song he chose for his first “Star Search” audition (and which led him to be rejected before producers changed their minds weeks later). As for his encore, if you know Harris’ career, you can probably guess what it is – and why it makes such a fitting coda.
While Harris states early on in the act that what he’s serving up is mostly “amuses bouches” or appetizers from his book, the result is a delicious meal that will leave you not only full, but intensely satisfied.
Photo: Maryann Lopinto