Critic’s Choice: LGBT Center’s ‘Ham: A Musical Memoir’: A captivating confessional, in song
In “Ham: A Musical Memoir,” redoubtable writer-performer Sam Harris deftly shares his trek from Sand Springs, Okla., to Hollywood, Broadway and beyond.
The buoyantly entertaining, uncommonly affecting results should keep the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Renberg Theatre packed during this West Coast premiere engagement.
Based on Harris’ book, “Ham: Slices of a Life,” the show begins with deceptively casual flair, as musical director Todd Schroeder, whose contribution cannot be overestimated, dashes off a well-known commercial jingle in florid classical mode.
Enter the artiste, perceptibly graying yet still the impish force of vocal nature who sailed to fame via the inaugural 1983-84 season of “Star Search,” singing the self-penned, aptly titled “Open Book.” Launching into a tale about choking on a hot dog at age 3, Harris’ quasi-vaudeville approach, which stops the show cold at his and Schroeder’s witty title song, gradually enters increasingly sober, deeply personal areas.
Young Sam makes his theater debut as one of the De Becque children in “South Pacific” with broken glass in his foot onstage -- pain and hilarity intersect throughout the piece -- then auditioning for Helen Keller in “The Miracle Worker.”
The journey of multicultural exploration, discovered gay identity and professional travails that follows is exceptionally well-written and structured, unfolding under the light directorial touch of Ken Sawyer, who shares program credit with original New York stager Billy Porter.
Assisted by Schroeder and choreographer Lee Martino, Harris’ musical selections, whether the scorching “God Bless the Child” or “Over the Rainbow,” effectively propel the coming-out-and-to-terms-with-himself narrative.
It lands like gangbusters, thanks to Harris’ unwavering specificity and humor -- even his house-hushing account of a teenage suicide attempt is underpinned with irony -- as well as his considerable knack for characterizations and a laser-beam voice, which is in marvelous estate.
The “little white boy who sings like a fat black woman” is intact, but new lyrical, dove-toned grace notes bespeak a mature perspective heard in his touching final fathers-and-sons gambit.
Indeed, the principal flaw with “Ham” is that it ends far too soon. Ham? More like filet mignon, and this captivating performer makes his incisive confessional an unmissable experience.
“Ham: A Musical Memoir,” Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Renberg Theatre, 1125 N. McCadden Place, Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Feb. 7. $35. (323) 860-7300 or www.lalgbtcenter.org/theatre. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
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