By Ron Fassler
Sam Harris has been entertaining audiences now since 1983, when he was the first winner of the syndicated series Star Search, which preceded American Idol and America’s Got Talent… and all the other competition shows that have come since. His singing voice captivated the nation, particularly his vocally hair-raising rendition of Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg’s “Over the Rainbow.” Back when there weren’t hundreds of channels to choose from, Harris was singing on Star Search in front of 25 to 30 million people a week. He went on to record numerous albums, appearing everywhere from Carnegie Hall to the White House, as well venues all over the world. He worked on Broadway (Tony nominated for 1997’s The Life) and even co-created a TV series, Down to Earth, which ran on TBS for four seasons. This is one versatile guy.
And now he’s back singing on stage at Feinstein’s 54 Below after a three-year absence from New York City. As he explained in the first of two shows he is performing there December 10th and 11th, “I’m a dad now and I don’t want to be touring the way I once did. After all, my son Cooper is eleven and currently obsessed with tits. How could I miss that? It was patter like this throughout the seventy-five-minute set that made the time fly by. He was consistently funny, charming, self-effacing, and very much in the moment. Things were scripted for sure, but it all felt like he was making everything up as he went along. Spontaneity like that is gold in the cabaret world, and even when one table with a couple of patrons who had too much to drink interfered more than once, Harris handled it with aplomb and good spirits. He had no choice really but to exude holiday cheer—this was (as he mentioned early on) “sort of a Christmas show.”
That was obvious from the get-go, as the first lyrics Harris crooned, seated on a stool in a spotlight, were: “For I’ve grown a little leaner, grown a little colder, grown a little sadder, grown a little older.” Any Broadway aficionado will recognize those as written by Jerry Herman for “We Need a Little Christmas” from Mame. And although he attempted to keep Christmas cheer to a minimum, being Jewish, he found a way to give Hanukkah equal time by singing Tom Lehrer’s hilarious “I’m spending Hanukkah in Santa Monica.” He also sang a heartfelt “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” as an encore. On “Santa’s Blue,” joined by his skilled accompanist for this engagement, James Sampliner, mean jazz rifts of piano playing excellence made for the evening’s most accomplished example of inspired musicianship and pure joy.
Harris’s repertoire consisted of beautifully rendered versions of Cindi Lauper’s “Time After Time” and Carly Simon and Rob Hyman’s “Jesse.” And when he did sing a triple threat of Broadway songs, it was an ascendance to musical comedy heaven. He killed with “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” Jule Styne and Bob Merrill’s Funny Girl end of Act One closer; “Use What You’ve Got,” the number he opened with nightly when he starred in Cy Coleman and Ira Gasman’s The Life on Broadway, and a wonderful (and timely) version of “A Cockeyed Optimist,” Nellie Forbush’s song from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific that felt as if it could have been written yesterday, as opposed to 70 years ago.
As part of that spontaneity I mentioned, midway through the show, Harris called Robbie Waldman up the stage. She is his dance coach from Los Angeles and he wanted her as support so that he could show off his fourteen hours of lessons with her. It was always a goal of his to master tap dancing and after what amounts to about two weeks of lessons, he took a shot at it. Happily, it would appear he is on his way. And what did they dance to? “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”
There’s only Wednesday December 11th to catch Sam Harris in his wonderful show at Feinstein’s 54 Below. Catch it if you can.
Reservations: 646-476-3551 www.54below.com