Just Jim Dale
The Grammy- and Tony-winning performer's one-man show traces his career from British music hall to Harry Potter.
Presumably, anyone venturing to Roundabout Theatre Company's Laura Pels Theatre to see Just Jim Dale is in the market for an evening of Jim Dale, the whole Jim Dale, and nothing but Jim Dale. Luckily, Jim Dale — who saves all his hyperbole for the show itself — is not one to disappoint. An interest in the life and career of the man stage left, right, and center, is a certainly a helpful prerequisite for audiences hoping to enjoy his stroll down memory lane. Yet, even for those unfamiliar with Dale's diverse theatrical tenure will be hard-pressed not to indulge in the old-fashioned entertainer's winning British charm.
The Laura Pels provides an unconventional environment for a show that feels better suited for a weekend engagement at a cabaret club than a two-month run in a full-size proscenium theater. Luckily, Dale's radiant joy for being onstage warms the expansive room as if we were all gathered around his living room fireplace rather than staring at a bare stage with a simple backdrop and piano (set design by Anna Louizos). The piano is occupied by talented accompanist Mark York, who offers Dale some company while enjoying the show himself with an infectious glee that adds to the cheerful, relaxed mood emanating throughout the theater.
The cabaret-style performance does veer toward the self-indulgent as he wistfully recalls his childhood inspirations (in the days he still went by Jimmy Smith), the underdog story that led to his big break, and other vignettes that paint Dale as a male Fanny Brice. However, self-indulgence is the nature of the beast when it comes to solo shows, in which personal experiences become the riveting and poignant tales that must capture the heart of an audience. Dale's flippant humor and casual banter successfully manage the show's blood sugar level, keeping his stories grounded and engaging for the majority of the performance. He capitalizes on his signature physicality, which he impressively maintains at the mature age of 78. Under the direction of Richard Maltby Jr., Dale breaks up his many monologues with songs, jokes, and a little soft-shoe, harking back to the style of unadulterated entertainment prominent in British music halls when he entered the world of show business.
Dale's anecdotes primarily skim through the profound moments of his career rather than the intimate details of his personal life, keeping the tone light with the occasional hint of tenderness — most notably in his rendition of "The Colors of My Life" from his Tony-winning performance in Barnum, offered in homage to his current wife, Julia Schafler. The rest of the show remains as breezy as his Oscar-nominated song "Georgy Girl" — represented here in an anecdote that earns prominent placement on the bill along with his Grammy-winning and Guinness World Record-breaking turn as the voice on the Harry Potter audiobook series.
These life chapters plug along at a smooth pace with the exception of a few moments in the nearly two-hour-long proceedings, suggesting that Dale's personal whims have overtaken Maltby's directorial authority. At one point, Dale breaks into an extended monologue from Noël Coward's Fumed Oak — an impressive showing of his dramatic chops squeezed into an already overstuffed bag of tricks. Nonetheless, with over six decades of blood, sweat, and tears in the theater, the veteran performer may, at last, have earned the right to a captive audience and a bare stage with room enough for Just Jim Dale.