Most people first saw and experienced Sam Harris during the first season of Star Search (1983-84) when he was named Best Male Vocalist after a 13-week string of amazing performances, including what became his signature song, “Over the Rainbow.” I first saw and experienced Sam Harris in 1982 when he performed a cabaret act in one of the small theatres in the Richmond Shepard Complex on Santa Monica Blvd. I was already familiar with the individual stage work of his three-girl backup group—Ann Marie Blake, Patti Cohenour and Eileen T’Kaye—known as the International Pancakes because of their favorite meeting place. Harris’s vocals overpowered the audience in the tiny theatre but there was no denying his vocal prowess and star quality. He later wrote and starred in the musical Hardcopy at the Coast Playhouse and wrote the nostalgic Hurry! Hurry! Hollywood! which premiered in La Mirada. He also appeared in the title role in Jesus Christ Superstar for Long Beach Civic Light Opera and played the lead in the national tour of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. On Broadway he received a Tony nomination for his work in The Life and appeared in Grease and The Producers.
Thirty plus years after that first sighting I am pleased to report that Harris still has the star quality and vocal prowess to pull off a one man show and keep a large capacity audience in thrall for 90-plus minutes. He is currently appearing in HAM-A Musical Memoir at the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Renberg Theatre. The show is based on his published memoir and directed by Billy Porter and Ken Sawyer. The brilliant Todd Schroeder continues his 24-year association with Harris as musical director, accompanist and aide-de-camp. Harris plays many characters in re-telling his early life and easily slips from one voice to another in scenes. He reminisces about his stage debut at age 5 as a Polynesian bastard child in South Pacific and performing with a shard of glass in his bare foot. His ham-ness hit him hard and he was determined to next play Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker but was defeated by traditional casting. He vividly recalls the discovery of the big black woman inside his little white boy body when he visited a black church with a school friend. He poignantly relives a teenage suicide attempt in small town Oklahoma and the kindly and wise teacher who told him his difference is what made him Sam. With a lot of humor he reveals his early club experiences in Los Angeles and his eventual discovery on Star Search. Harris is a great storyteller, expertly combining pathos and humor and knowing exactly how long to dwell on a certain memory. The Harris singing voice has a new maturity and depth to it but still retains its uniqueness and power. Besides snatches of some show tunes and the truly moving rendition of “Over the Rainbow,” Harris performs some wonderful “new” songs written with Schroeder. “Open Book,” “Ham” and “Broken Wing” are standouts. Harris is one performer who truly earned the hearty standing ovation at the end of the evening. Bravo old friend!
Renberg Theatre, 1125 N. McCadden Pl. in Hollywood. Ends Feb. 7. www.lalgbtcenter.org/tickets or 323-860-7300.