Review: ‘Sam Harris’

Tony nominee Sam Harris (Broadway's "The Life") offers an eclectic mix of pop and Broadway tunes that features his vocal range, understanding of all musical genres and ability to communicate the heart of a song. His music director-pianist Todd Schroeder elevates songs to the level of vocal/piano duets yet never distracts from the vocalist.

As Tony nominee Sam Harris (Broadway’s “The Life”) blazes his way through a two-hour-plus theater concert, it is awe-inspiring to watch that much voice coming from so compact a frame. The casually clad Harris offers an eclectic mix of pop and Broadway tunes that features his considerable vocal range, an impressive understanding of all musical genres and an intuitive ability to communicate the emotional heart of a song. He has a more than capable ally in onstage music director-pianist Todd Schroeder, whose inventive keyboard arrangements often elevate songs to the level of vocal/piano duets yet never distract from the vocalist. Harris is also a provocative raconteur whose between-song chatter occasionally could use some editing.

Opening with a bluesy rendition of the little-known but thematically on-target Harold Arlen-Yip Harburg ditty “Satan’s Li’l Sam” (with impishly provocative lyrics by Johnny Mercer), Harris demonstrates an amazing vocal instrument. After telling the audience that he always seems to time local appearances to coincide with some crisis (the 1992 riots, the first Gulf War, Gulf War II), Harris then soars through the Harvey Schmidt/Tom Jones classic “I Can See It,” from “The Fantasticks.” He offers further commentary on current world events with a tongue-in-cheek rendering of Randy Newman’s “nuke ’em all” take on world affairs, “Political Science.”

After losing his way a bit in a rambling discourse about moving back to L.A., Harris gets back on track, displaying his tender side with deeply felt offerings of the Cyndi Lauper hit “Time After Time” (with vocal harmony by Schroeder); the Allan Shamblin/Mike Reid ode to a love’s labor lost, “I Can Make You Love Me”; and the Kenneth King ballad “Everyone’s Gone to the Moon.”

Near the end of the first act, Harris gets decidedly funky, with his own version of Sylvia Fine Kaye’s satirical “The Torch Singer” serving as a launching pad to a driving medley of “I Got a Right to Sing the Blues” and Arlen’s “Stormy Weather.” He then throws himself into a down-and-dirty take on Jimi Hendrix’s “Red House” that displays the myriad tonal and emotional possibilities the blues has to offer. As if to contrast the emotional fervor of Hendrix, Harris makes full use of his vocal range and control with his haunting first-act closer, “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

Harris opens the second act with tunes from Broadway, beginning with a medley of “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This” (Cy Coleman/Dorothy Fields) and “Move On,” by Steven Sondheim. He then offers a sultry version of “My Favorite Things” that would be unrecognizable to Rodgers & Hammerstein.

To give some theatrical variation to the evening, Harris does a bit of role-playing as a besotted customer at a piano bar harassing more-than-patient piano man Schroeder, leading to a playful rendering of the Kingston Trio standard “Scotch and Soda” and the sadly defeatist Doris Tauber/Johnny Mercer tune “Drinking Again.”

Harris offers a faux ending to the evening by stepping away from his mike to prove he can fill the house with the unamplified power of his own lungs, soaring through the Schwartz/Dietz ode to self-affirmation, “By Myself.” In his encores, Harris is more introspective, wending his way thoughtfully but rhythmically through “Over the Rainbow” and offering a deeply moving, self-effacing “In My Life,” giving further evidence that this Lennon/McCartney ballad may be one of the most compelling songs ever written.

Sam Harris

Canon Theater; 280 seats; $40 top

Production

Presented by Marathon Entertainment. Musical director-pianist, Todd Schroeder. Opened March 29, 2003; reviewed April 6; closes April 19.
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