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Just Jim Dale

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Jim Dale
Photo by Joan Marcus

Music hall is in no danger of dying out as long as Jim Dale is still around. Oh, sure, Dale, who at 78 looks and acts younger than countless performers many years his junior, may claim that the classic performance form died out in the 1960s. But he proves in the appropriately titled Just Jim Dale, and playing at Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre, that he's a more-than-capable carrier of the spirit, laughs, and lyricism that defined 150 years of populist English entertainment.

As one of its last standard-bearers, Dale must fill many roles, and he's uniquely qualified to do so. Actor? Check: He's appeared on Broadway eight times, even more Off-Broadway and elsewhere, and of course in movies, television, and even audio books (he is, for millions of Americans, the voice of the Harry Potter series), so occupying the story of his life from humble birth to present stardom is no impossible task. Singer? He's done Barnum, Me and My Girl, Candide, and The Threepenny Opera onstage, leaving aside his career as a mid-20th-century touring pop singer on the other side of the pond.

He's a comedian, too, of course—though "clown" might be an even more appropriate designation, given his nimble-legged way of walking, precisely angular gestures, and timing most stand-up artists would kill for. And what would the music hall be without, well, music? You may not be aware (I shamefully wasn't) that Dale helped write, among other songs, "Georgy Girl," and he brings that sentiment, and a few original scribings of his own, to play here. If anyone today qualifies as an all-in-one Renaissance actor, Dale certainly does, and puts every one of those skills to hard-driving use in a 100-minute evening that looks as though it must be far more exhausting than Dale lets on.

But whether he's describing the comedic circumstances of his birth (a mother who shouted "Ta da!" when he finally appeared after 18 hours of labor), his introduction to the theatre, dance, or the music hall itself, his traumatic first day recording Harry Potter and the Sorcere's Stone, or even waxing tender about meeting his wife in a Madison Avenue "art-to-wear" gallery in the '70s, Dale never appears less than absolutely fresh, excited, excitable, and a master storyteller who knows every acting trick required for making what's important to him important to you. When he recreates his Joe Egg bit barking at the audience as if they're unruly school children, you'll be only too happy to oblige his every order (or at least too scared to discover what happens if you don't).

In other words, Dale has that critical quality that's missing from so many of the top younger performers today: charisma. He's unavoidable, a force of nature with a gift for not just acting natural but being natural. Even when his face is plastered with a sly, slick grin, as it is most of the time, you'll find yourself rapt and not just delighting in, but relying on every word he says.

Whether each of those words is ideally crafted and presented, however, is another matter. For all the buoyant specificity Dale brings to enacting roughly every second from his birth to the present day, the script he's written to tie the myriad magical moments together is distracting at best and slipshod at worst. Individual anecdotes are irresistible, but they're often strung together as if at random, and with little obvious regard for the importance of fluid structure or making maximum dramatic and theatrical impact.

His Me and My Girl medley, for example, comes at the very beginning, awkwardly tying together his first exposure to a musical and his work as a replacement for the Tony-winning Robert Lindsay. Dale drones at length about the embarrassment his sons felt as his having composed a trifle called "Dicka-Dum Dum," but sings the whole, tedious thing as if to demonstrate its irrelevance. For that matter, his sons receive no other mention, and his first wife none at all. And that tale of his meeting his second, longer-lasting wife almost rings as little more than a weak setup for singing "The Colors of My Life" from Barnum.

Magnetic though Dale may be in action, as a writer he goes to great lengths to ensure that you never know him beyond his meticulously cultivated stage persona, and that leaves what surrounds him rather cold; no invocation of the music hall, even through Anna Louizos's excellent simple set or Mark York's bouncy piano playing, can change that. A dramaturge or other collaborator might have helped him bring out deeper truths—or, for that matter, any truths—à la the sprawling, show-stopping, and genuinely touching Elaine Stritch At Liberty. But if director Richard Maltby, Jr. has had any shaping impact on Just Jim Dale beyond staging with a light, energetic hand, there's really no evidence of that to be found here.

No, the music hall might have been less about sweeping feelings than acting as a "leave your troubles outside" romp for working-class folks. But Dale, through his narrative ambition and raw talent, elevates it beyond the status of frivolous fun, and thus raises expectations along with it. That he ultimately fails to meet them is less a failing than a missed opportunity: Just Jim Dale is superb as a vehicle for highlighting one of theatre's greatest living headliners within his spacious comfort zone, but considerably less effective at demonstrating there's more to him than the sky-high ability he so expertly wields.

Just Jim Dale
Through August 10
Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street between 6th and 7th Avenue
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