Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Theater Review: ‘Just Jim Dale,” From the Roundabout Theatre Co.

I’m really not a fan of one-man shows. To me, it’s a way of reducing one of Broadway’s sorriest long-term trends—smaller casts for the sake of trimming costs—to their logical conclusion. And somehow, for the average theatergoer, the price of a ticket, even without supporting cast members (in this scenario, regarded as expendable as spear carriers), remains unduly high.

But Just Jim Dale led me to lay aside, at least for awhile, my feelings about such shows. I hadn’t known what to expect going on, other than the fact that its star, Jim Dale, is a hardy—and celebrated—Broadway institution. His talents, I firmly believe now, were sadly underused in two other Roundabout Theatre shows that I saw several years ago, The Road to Mecca and The Threepenny Opera.  

But you owe it to yourself to catch this show before it closes August 10. Otherwise, you will be missing the chance to experience not just a half-century of life in the theater, but even a kind of Zelig of late-20th century entertainment: someone who's engaged knockabout English revues, rock ‘n’ roll, composing for film, classical theater, Broadway, and audiotapes of famous—very famous—novels.

It helps that Dale is in one of the Roundabout’s most intimate venues, the Laura Pels Theatre, but you get the sense he would be comfortable anywhere. Much of this derives from the English music-hall tradition, which, he notes, lasted for 180 years, up to the 1960s. It seems obvious that he developed his talent for, in effect, shrinking the size of any theater from this form of entertainment, which placed a premium on audience participation and familiarity. (Fans would not only come out for the same shows year after year, he noted, but crave the exact same jokes each time.)

A short stint as a rock ‘n’ roll singer in the early 1960s led to one of the most surprising interludes of his career: writing the lyrics for the title tune of the movie Georgy Girl. In one of the most hilarious segments in an hour and 40 minutes filled with them, Dale recounted his bewildered of the song for two heavyset men in dark suits who complained that the song “just won’t woik,” because it had to be “a song that Frank [Sinatra] would do.” (Time would vindicate Dale and his composer partner, Dusty Springfield’s brother Tom, with the pair scoring an Oscar nomination.)

Most fans, however, came to know Dale when he moved front and center into the theater world. The show features his inspired dramatic soliloquys from Noel Coward’s Fumed Oak and Peter Nichols’ Day in the Death of Joe Egg; a ferocious tongue-twisting number on all the phrases created by The Bard, “You’re Quoting Shakespeare”; and descriptions of acrobatic performances in the likes of Scapino and Barnum.

While Dale has been recently inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame for his years of work in such shows, he has gained a whole new generation of fans through a very different source: narrating all seven audiobooks for the Harry Potter series, which required him to create more than 200 voices in J.K. Rowlings’ teeming fantasy universe. In one scene in this solo show, he recreates his first, agonizing day of appearing in an unfamiliar medium with its own unique demands.

From first to late, what strikes you most about Dale is his physical dexterity. When first contemplating getting into the entertainment business, he recalls, his father’s advice was short and simple: “Learn to move.” Seldom in show-business history has advice been better heeded. Even at age 78, Dale possesses the same kind of gift for transcendent physical comedy that Dick Van Dyke displayed 50 years ago on his sitcom. He shows, for instance, how his career began in earnest: when, as a youth, when his dancing partner missed a ballet competition, he impressed the judges, in spite of themselves, by performing the pas de deux without her, as much by laughing themselves silly as by the moves he executed.

The constant interaction with audience members might lead one to believe that the show is spontaneous, but the whole thing is carefully scripted, revealed director Richard Maltby, Jr. in one of the Roundabout’s “Celebrity” post-show “talk-backs” with audience members. Like his good friend, fellow theater legend Frank Langella, Dale has been “dining out” on favorite stories from his long career, with the tales improving with each telling. The show was an attempt to mold them into coherent order. 

Somewhat to his chagrin, Maltby achieved some of his greatest recognition in the theater with his work on two Tony Award-winning musical reviews: Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Fosse. Though he professes not to be a fan of the form, he has performed similar sterling work by developing a through line for one of the entertainment industry’s most multifaceted—not to mention charming and talented—performers. I can easily see its star taking Just Jim Dale on the road for as long as he wants.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am a fan of the one man or woman show - if it's done right - and this one sounds right. You write quite the detailed review; both author and actor should be pleased.