January 18, 2015

I was worried going into Ham: A Musical Memoir, at Theater 511 at Ars Nova. Its star, Sam Harris, now in his 50s, was the male-vocalist champion on the very first season (1983-84) of Star Search, which was unique at the time as a television talent-competition series. How long ago was 1983? Ed McMahon was the show’s host. So, even directed by Billy Porter (best known now as the star of Kinky Boots), this production, based on Mr. Harris’s book, Ham: Slices of a Life, had every chance of being a sad “What ever happened to?” exercise. But Mr. Harris pulls out all the stops, plays this intimate theater space as if it were Carnegie Hall and proves himself a winner one more time. Growing up in small-town Oklahoma, Mr. Harris liked theater a lot more than sports. We see him as his younger self, grabbing the spotlight as one of the mixed-race children in South Pacific, singing “Dites-Moi.” The next local production is The Miracle Worker, and little Sam sees no reason he shouldn’t play Helen Keller — although he does wonder how you can “read” for a role that has no lines. He’s drawn to people he perceives as outsiders and kind of wants to be black (such great music at the church services, he observes) and kind of wants to be Jewish. He does get to be gay.