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A CurtainUp Review
HAM: A Musical Memoir

You either like yourself as a complete person or you don't.
HAM: A Musical Memoir
Sam Harris
Memoirs are a tricky thing to pull off, largely because their success and failure usually has to do with the nature of the life being described rather than the quality of the description itself. The problem is that everyone wants to believe his or her life is endlessly fascinating — we're all the heroes of our own stories-so determining whether or not it's really something anyone else will care to read about is a tough proposition.

But what if you're talking about a "musical memoir," filled with theatricality, pizzazz and charm, and performed by a musician with a long resume and serious chops? Under those circumstances you've got a lot better chance of pulling it off, and that's clearly the bet veteran musician and actor Sam Harris is placing with HAM: A Musical Memoir — a bet which largely pays off, even if it has to limit its scope to do so.

Harris's career got its real start on Star Search in 1983, but much of the ninety minute running time of HAM (based on Harris's written memoir HAM: Slices of a Life) is dedicated to the events leading up to that experience, mostly from his difficult childhood growing up in Sand Springs, Oklahoma. As you might expect, a tiny southern town in the 1960s was a less than ideal environment for a boy with aspirations to the big stage-particularly a homosexual with no one to turn to for support and guidance.

Harris does a credible job of weaving together milestone events of his childhood-an unsuccessful tryout for a Little League team, his discovery of music with soul in an African-American Baptist church, his first stage appearance in a local production of South Pacific, his first encounter with love-into a master narrative of an artist in search of himself. This is made easier not only by Harris's undeniable talent and charisma, but by a number of both familiar and unfamiliar songs, many co-written by musical director and performer Todd Schroeder (whose spirited piano accompaniment is also a big plus in the production). And Tony award winning director Billy Porter knows how to keep the action moving briskly and confidently.

A lot of the show is simply Harris in his over-the-top glory, and he himself admits that HAM is really a perfect description for the kind of performer he's often been. But there's a certain sense while watching him work through an impressive array of musical numbers that he hasn't exorcised all of his demons quite yet . . .and it's this which gives the show a bit of an odd, rather limiting frame.

The production is often very powerful and poignant—for example, the description of Harris's attempted suicide as a teenager, incapable of expressing his feelings for another boy to anyone else, or the sweet, gentle rendition of his signature "Somewhere Over The Rainbow," sung to his five year old son, adopted by his husband and him. But so much time is spent on just those fifteen years of his life — the description of his career from just after Star Search to the present passes in about five minutes — that one wonders whether this is really a memoir or simply an long indictment of the narrow-minded provincialism and bigotry that almost cost him his life. That's obviously a message well worth delivering, but I'm not sure it really needs an hour and a half to do it when his audience has been on his side within minutes of the show's opening.

Still, Harris's enthusiasm is hard to resist, and his musical and performing abilities are top notch. One might wish that HAM: A Musical Memoir took a more expansive look at Harris's career, or that it wasn't so driven to keep its focus so narrow. However, it's still a well-produced and executed show by a consummate musician and entertainer, and proves that even a self-proclaimed "certified ham" can deliver quality work without overstaying his welcome.

HAM: A Musical Memoir
Writer, Performer: Sam Harris
Musical Director: Todd Schroeder
Director: Billy Porter
Lighting/Sound Design: Matt Berman
Scenic Design: Reid Thompson
Costume Design: Hunter Kaczorowski
Running time: Ninety minutes
Theater 511 at Ars Nova, 511 West 54th St., (212) 352-3101
From 1/8/15 to 1/24/15, opening 1/12/15
Wednesday-Monday @ 8 p.m.
Tickets: $21 general admission
Reviewed by Dr. Gregory A. Wilson based on January 11th preview performance
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