THE BLOG
01/12/2015 07:40 pm ET Updated Mar 14, 2015

First Nighter: Sam Harris' Expertly Baked Ham , Victor L. Cahn's Sly Villainous Company

If you were to ask me who the best male pop singer in the country is -- not that anyone has -- I wouldn't immediately name bestsellers Michael Bublé or Josh Groban. I wouldn't say Tony Bennett, who, in his advancing 80s, remains among our most impressive singers. I wouldn't say the less prominent Michael Feinstein, Kevin Dozier or Philip Officer, all of whom are superb crooners. I wouldn't say Kurt Elling, whom I classify more readily as a jazz singer.

I would immediately say Sam Harris. I would have said so ever since his 1983 triumph on the first Star Search season.

After seeing Ham, the adaptation of his beautifully written and often humorous memoir Ham: Slices of a Life (Simon & Schuster), at Theater 511 at Ars Nova, I'm even more committed to my belief. Throughout the hour-plus turn, directed sleekly by Billy Porter, Harris intersperses songs -- many of them abbreviated, which bothered me somewhat -- with the story of his life.

A native of small and apparently intolerant Sand Springs, Oklahoma (pop. 6,000) -- which, he tells us, has no sands and no springs -- Harris recounts the story of a not-always-happy life. He wanted to perform from the time he was 3 but received little encouragement from his kind but perplexed father.

Realizing from an early age that he was different but only later understanding he was gay, he was so disturbed by his inclinations that he attempted suicide at 15. He swallowed a handful of Seconals and was only wrenched from an early demise by a household emergency involving his younger brother.

Nevertheless, Harris remained troubled by his urges well past the early successes -- he refers to a "Sam Harris mask" -- and was only set wise much later by a concerned Sand Springs psychotherapist. Then Harris reconciled with his nature and was able to engage in a long affair with Danny Jacobsen. They married several years ago and are jointly raising adopted son Cooper. These days they appear to enjoy a happy home life, which may account for Harris' being less available for tours, et cetera.

While personally distraught, Harris steadily worked at performing and, as he tells it, had his emotional awakening when a teenaged singer friend took him to a black Baptist church. He felt his impulses suddenly liberated and found himself well on his way to becoming the singer he is today.

As he explains this -- using a doorway on casters and two chairs as his only props -- he makes it clear that what distinguishes him is that he's staunchly dedicated to "[singing] personal." This means that whatever he chooses to sing profoundly reflects his instinctive as well as examined history.

Everything he does comes from deep within him. His ability to transmit those impulses explains, certainly to me, his irresistible appeal. The Ham repertoire includes a title song he's written with musical director and chiming-in sidekick Todd Schroeder, and two other rousing, clever Harris-Schroeder tunes.

He also reprises, by way of a medley, the songs he delivered during his Star Search rise to fame. At the end (and needless to say) he includes "Over the Rainbow," but trimmed. About that crucial competition-winning rendition he says, "I did everything but tie explosives to my body." He does sing it again in its entirety later. I won't reveal the context but will say he uses an entirely different approach.

And it couldn't be more enchanting. The depth of feeling he brings to it is matched only, in my estimation, by Judy Garland's introductory Wizard of Oz warbling and represents one end of the wide range along which he sings. Now in his 50s, Harris is fit and as good-looking as ever and exercises masterful control over his voice. Yes, he continues to go for the over-the-top notes and the roof-shaking melismas with which he put himself on the entertainers' map. That, however, is only one facet of his vocal strategies. As a result, he's as nuanced a singer as exists these days.

Harris may revel in being a ham, but that's not the single entrée on his meat-and-potatoes menu. Want to see and hear a top-of-the-line performer who also acts and mimics with ease? Sam's the man.

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When devious ladies get together, how do the power shifts operate? Victor L. Cahn explores the possibilities in Villainous Company, a 90-minute, two-act play at the Clurman that he calls "a caper for three women." It isn't much more than a nastily cheerful divertissement, but what's wrong with a nastily cheerful divertissement every now and then?

Claire (Corey Tazmania) has come in from the rain with a couple of bundles and, she mentions, 41 cents change from her lunch bill. Only seconds later Tracy (Alice Bahlke) arrives with the missing package wrapped in blue paper that Claire has discovered she left behind at the Pyramid Furnishings Company. But she didn't forget it. Tracy, who packed the intended gifts, deliberately left one out of the bag so she could bring it to Claire.

Tracy, you see, has been watching Claire for some time and suspects -- well, knows, really -- that Claire is up to no good. Tracy has decided she wants in on a racket she believes is underway that features purloined antiques and their escalating value, which means that having positioned a foot in Claire's door, she's going to remain steadfastly inside so as to get the drop on her prey.

She does that until Joanna (Julia Campanelli), a suave type, enters at the end of act one. As act two of the romp is underway, Joanna manages to manipulate the conniving Tracy and gets to thinking she's achieved her nefarious end. But has she? Tracy has trumped Claire, and Joanna has trumped Tracy, or so it seems. But who will really come out on top at the finish, and what part in all the chicanery does unseen Eleanor play?

Eric Parness directs with quiet menace. The women -- at their game of human chess on Jennifer Varbalow's adequate set and wearing Brooke Cohen's serviceable clothes -- go about their thesping business more than efficiently. Bahlke has as much fun as the smilingly demonic Tracy she's playing does. Tazmania is enigmatic as the perhaps put-upon, perhaps putting-upon Claire. Campanelli is properly lubricious as Joanna, the sort of ambitious person who's succeeded at shattering a glass ceiling.

It could be that female patrons will object to a male playwright's depicting three women as so unpleasantly acquisitive. They might object to a male' director's getting to handle the material when a female director could have done well too. But, come on, it's only a play.

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Need help? In the U.S., visit The Trevor Project or call them at 1-866-488-7386. You can also call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.