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A CurtainUp Review
Just Jim Dale
By Elyse Sommer
Even if ywou just list everything Dale has done, and with great success, it would be impossible to make it fit Twitter parameters. However, he and director Richard Maltby Jr. have brilliantly staged the highlights in a song, dance and laugh filled 100 minutes. But true to the show's modest title, there's nothing show-offy about their presentation. Except for the occasional projection of an early Jim Dale stage persona and the piano for the excellent Mark York's accompaniment to the songs, the only bells and whistles this show gets — and needs — come from Jim Dale.
The autobiographical focus allows Dale to replay material from his best known as well as less familiar work. Ultimately this irrepressibly engaging and funny anecdotal ride through an eventful life is an ode to the Music Hall era that shaped not just Dale's career but much of contemporary stage, film and TV comedy.
Showman that he is, Dale emphasizes show rather than tell. Thus he introduces himself with a ditty about a drunk who was joined by a pig when he laid down in the gutter, only to have the pig rise and walk away when a passerby said "You can tell a man who boozes By the company he chooses!" A lusty rendition of "I Gotta Be Me" from Stop the world I Want to Get Off demonstrates the link between Music Hall style and content to modern musicals. It also paves the way to recount how Dale grew up as the son of a small town British working man who nevertheless taught himself to playthe piano.
Despite a lively family life which included weekend gatherings for sing-alongs and dance lessons, the chances of realizing the ambition to get into show business was unlikely for a lad from a factory town. Yet, while Jimmy Smith wasn't born into the business courtesy of illustrious parents, neither did he "break in like a burglar." Instead, at the ripe old age of seventeen, he actually landed in it when he entered a talent audition as an impressionist and tripped over the curtain. Young Smith's impressions didn't impress the man in charge but the laughs he got with the way he handled that fall got him a chance to develop a pratfall act. Though stage fright almost intervened, two stage hands took matters in hand, tossed Jim onto the stage for a landing as "Jim Smith, the Laff Smith."
As Dale's first try to be an impressionist turned into something else, so an impromptu song at the end of a tryout as a warm-up comedian for another company led to a turn as a guitar toting pop singer. And, in case you're wondering how Smith became Dale, that too was unplanned. Seems that the contract for his singing job accidentally confused his name with that of his agent Stanley Dale and Jim decided to give the Smith-to-Dale switch a go.
When he turned to writing and not just singing, his biggest hit was the theme song for the movie Georgie Girl in which he advised the title character "don't be so scared of changing and rearranging yourself." Clearly Jim Dale was never afraid to change and rearrange himself. As he walked out of his first job in his home town's shoe factory to pursue a less walled in life, so he grabbed opportunity even when it was unplanned, tried writing as well as singing songs, and finally ventured into acting. .
We're treated to a full rendition not only of "Georgie Girl" but a deliciously silly earlier hit, "Dicka-Dum Dum." In fact, with the audience eating out of his hands, as they do from the get go, he turns this into a sing-a-long — shades of those family weekend get-togethers of his youth.
The play that led to Dale's love affair with acting, was Noel Coward's Fumed Oak about a henpecked little chap who finally rebels against his nagging wife, mother-in-law and obnoxious teenage daughter. Again, instead of just telling us what got him caught up in this, Dale steps into the man's shoes and actually does the Coward character's farewell monologue.
One of Dale's most notable acting roles, Joe Egg, turns up as this show's biggest fourth wall breaker. In it Dale leaves the stage to enlist the audience the annoying pupils of the play's frustrated school teacher.
If I had to pick a favorite of the non-stop pleasures dished up, it would be when Dale talks about how his playing a number of Shakespeare's clowns made him aware of the Bard's coinage of enough words and phrases to make quoting Shakespeare a daily occurrence. To illustrate he does an amazing rapid fire illustration of how we quote Shakespeare all the time. It's the same as the high speed singing of "There's a Sucker Born Every Minute" from Barnum, the first Broadway show that made him a superstar. Who said, actors in their seventies have trouble remembering lines!
Of course younger audiences know Dale best as the voice of the Harry Potter audio books, or rather the many voices. And the hat donned as an audio book reader makes for a hilariously enlightening segment that explains the inspiration for the various characters' voices and the adjustment to a stage consisting of a recording booth.
While laughter prevails (including a few jokes that could be eliminated in the interest of a five or ten minute trim), there's a wonderfully touching tribute to the love of Dale's life, Julie Shaffler, into whose Madison Avenue wearable art gallery (which sadly closed down last year)he wandered thirty-four years ago. He sums up that relationship with composer Cy Coleman and and lyricist Mark Stewart's's lovely “The Colors Of My Life."
The show's musical farewell comes courtesy of Irving Berlin's "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy" to which Dale has added his own lyrics. To his "Looking back, I must confess that in my lifetime I've been blessed," I can only add that theater goers too are blessed. You don't have to be old enough to have have seen Dale in Barnum and Joe Egg to get caught up in the charm and warmth of a consummate entertainer.
As Curtainup regulars know, solo shows are not my favorite genre, but there are exceptions like Just Jim Dale. Don't miss it!.
Postscript: While I didn't see Dale in the shows excerpted in Just Jim Dale, he's been a standout whenever I did catch him on or Off Broadway. His quick character transformations in the 1997 revival of Candide were as mind boggling as the current show's rapid fire Shakespeare quotation business and Barnum sample. He was also a fine and dandy Mr. Peachum in the Roundabout's otherwise somewhat problematic 2006 revival of Three Penny Opera. .
Of the straight plays in which I saw him , Dale's very fine performance in the New Group's 2003 revival of Trevor Giffiths The Comedians ranks high in my memory book. And it was when he made his appearance in the Roundabout's 2012 revival of Athol Fugard's Road to Mecca that the play really came to life.
When I was invited to see a special one-performance production of Busker Alley seven years ago, there was talk about a Broadway run. The musical adaptation by the Sherman Brothers and A J Carothers of a 1938 British motion picture St. Martin's Lane certainly was made to order for Jim Dale, so here's hoping that this may still happen while this superb song and dance man is still in top form.