We all know stage/television performer Sam Harris is talented. He was the first winner of "Star Search" back in 1984; in the 1997 Cy Coleman/ Ira Gasman/David Newman musical "The Life," he won a Tony nomination playing a hard-hearted hustler in New York.
The man knows show business.
But what was surprising about his Friday performance at The Smith Center for the Performing Arts’ Jazz Cabaret was his ability to get intimate with an audience. It’s no small feat to sing big enough for a crowd while remaining small enough to make a person feel the songs are all meant for him.
The 51-year-old Oklahoma native exhibited a diversified repertoire of Broadway standards, soft rock, and jazz. He can sell. His body was rarely still, as if it couldn’t contain the joy it was experiencing with the music.
Backed by musical director Todd Schroeder’s piano accompaniment, Harris’ exuberance made him a natural for comic numbers such as "Razzle Dazzle" (from "Chicago"). And his take on "Use What You Got" (his opening number from "The Life") allowed him to demonstrate a soaring playfulness and a Bob Fosse-style aggressive theatricality.
But I was taken aback by his ability to hush the room with whispering ballads like "I Can’t Make You Love Me," which made you feel the pain of unreturned love, and Simon and Garfunkel’s "Bridge Over Troubled Water," which, after a gentle start, built into a soaring anthem.
Harris established a chummy relationship with his audience. "Every time I go onstage, I get so nervous!" he said. "I think, ‘What the hell are you doing? Who do you think you are?’ " He exuded warmth, as if to say to listeners, "I like you. I’m glad you’re here."
He described "The Life" as "a show about Times Square before it turned into Mickey Mouse."
And after doing a little Jimi Hendrix, he said his next CD was originally going to be "Sammy does Sondheim," but "the people spoke" and so his next release will be "Sammy does Jimi." Not so far-fetched.
Harris has a deft ability in altering lyrics. His version of Sondheim’s revered "I’m Still Here" (from "Follies") included: "I had a sidekick in Ed McMahon / and I’m here! / I played in the White House / and I’m here! / I’m married and I have a child / And I’m queer!!" (Remember the days when a mainstream performer could never get away with that?)
Harris has an occasional tendency to oversing. He so easily communicates emotion that he may not realize how little he needs to do. And at times his mannerisms suggest a Liza Minnelli impression.
That’s fine for a comic number, but not-so-fine when we’re supposed to take the lyrics seriously.
But the show ended on a high, soft note: a tender, searching interpretation of "Over the Rainbow" that felt uniquely Harris’. When a man can take such a familiar tune and make it his own, it’s obvious he deserves the title "artist."
Anthony Del Valle can be reached at email@example.com. You can write him c/o Las Vegas Review-Journal, P.O. Box 70, Las Vegas, NV 89125.Review
WHO: Sam Harris
WHERE: Jazz Cabaret at The Smith Center for the Performing Arts