Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Just Jim Dale

And should this sunlit world, grow dark one day, the colors of my life, will leave a shining light, to show the way...”*

The lean and lanky 78-year-old man standing center stage at the Laura Pels Theatre has a story to tell. No playwright could have written a more colorful one. For 100 enchanting minutes, Just Jim Dale is a tour through the Tony-winning actor’s amazing life, told with humor and unbounded energy in this Roundabout production that opened last night for a limited engagement through Aug. 10.

The son of an iron foundry worker and shoe factory employee from the tiny English town of Rothwell - “the dead center of England in every way” — shared stories, jokes, songs and dances in his one-man show, directed by Richard Maltby Jr., with musical direction by Aaron Gandy.

Dale is a marvelous storyteller, recalling his teenage start as a comic in British music halls — “the principle entertainment for working class Brits” —, then pop singer and songwriter turned Academy Award-nominated lyricist for “Georgy Girl”, the title song from the 1966 film starring Lynn Redgrave that sold 10 million records. His portrayals of his difficulties at staying still for his recent Grammy-winning gigs as audio-book reader of the Harry Potter series, for which he created original voices for more than 200 characters, are hilarious . The colors of his life have, indeed, been "bountiful and bold."*

Young Jim Smith was 6 when he was seized by the showbiz call while watching a local variety show. The following year his father took him to London to see Me and My Girl and he declared that’s what he wanted to do. “It was electrifying. The hairs stood up on the back on my neck.”

It’s one thing to declare as a child that “that’s what I want to do,” while it’s another to actually do it, but “40 years almost to the day” later, Dale starred in the play’s revival on Broadway.

But let’s not jump ahead -- back to childhood. His father, with amazing understanding for a laboring man, told him if musical theatre work was what he wanted, “you have to learn how to move.” So he was enrolled in tap, ballroom and “the dreaded ballet” lessons for six years. “I was the Billy Eliot of our town.”

With a black and white projection of an old time music hall behind him (set by Anna Louizos), his stories are enlivened by blown-up black and white photos of himself projected behind him — the lad in black pants and white dress shirt was a dark-haired, chubbier version of the lean, gray-haired man he is today. From the beginning of his show he proves he not only learned to move back then, he also developed impeccable timing for story and joke telling and, of course, cultivated that golden voice. 

Along the way he took up the name Dale after it appeared by mistake on one of his contracts. England already had another performer named Jim Smith, and Jim Dale is nothing if not an original, so it seems right that he should have a showbiz name to himself.

No Jim Dale show would be complete without songs from his hit Broadway shows, Me and My Girl and Barnum, and he did not disappoint. His offering of the title song from the first show was enchanting, as was his “The Lambeth Walk.”

From Barnum, he not only sang “The Colors of My Life” as a tribute to his wife, Julie Schafler, and “There’s a Sucker Born Ev’ry Minute,” but also gave a breakdown of all the thrills his carnival-promoting P.T. Barnum had to offer in “Museum Song”. First he had pianist Mark York play the music slowly so we could hear each enticement, a few of which are: “Armadillas, clever caterpillas, reproductions of the Cyclops' ret'na, crystal blowing, automatic sewing, Venus on a shell and other works of art.” Then he let them fly RAPIDLY, just the way they sound on my 1980 cast album. Whew! What a joy.

"No quiet browns and grays" for this performer. He’s taken his days "and filled them till they overflow, with rose and cherry reds . . ."*

 *"The Colors of My Life" from Barnum. Lyrics by Michael Stewart Music by Cy Coleman.

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