Photo credit: Joan Marcus, courtesy of the Roundabout Theatre
Roundabout's puzzling summer selection at the Laura Pels Theatre (a replacement for Bekah Brunstetter's postponed Cutie and Bear) seems to be an innocuous way to please its septuagenarian subscriber base without breaking the bank: a one-man show penned and performed by 78-year-old Broadway veteran Jim Dale. For the more discerning theatergoer, Just Jim Dale comes across as a poorly-composed sepia-toned selfie. If you want to learn more about Dale, visit his Wikipedia page; if you want to see that entry adapted into a tiresome 100-minutes with little emotion or fresh insight, see this show. Quite simply, this cabaret fare belongs in a more intimate setting where bottles of wine can impair critical judgment.
Dale claims that the acting bug bit him with his very first breath, when his mother announced "Ta-Dah" as he exited the womb. Standing on a virtually bare stage with a charmless pianist (Mark York), the showman takes us back to his childhood in Rothwell, England ("the dead center of London in every way"), where he studied dance and transformed into the Billy Elliot of his hometown. He soon works his way up to the top of the bills of the British Music Hall scene as a celebrated slapstick physical comedian. After a brief career as a pop singer in his early 20s, Dale commits to serious acting after seeing a Noel Coward play. He soon finds success playing many of Shakespeare's clowns, before moving onto leading Broadways roles in Barnum, Scapino, and a revivals of The Threepenny Opera and Candide.
Dale is also an accomplished songwriter, lending the film Georgy Girl its Oscar-nominated theme song. He's also recorded all of J.K. Rowling's seven Harry Potter audiobooks, creating original voices for each character. He shares silly stories about both projects that often strain credulity.
But beyond his resumé, who is Jim Dale? Isn't he more than the sum of his credits? In between songs, we crave moments of reflection, but he offers us very little substance. Under the direction of Richard Maltby Jr., he appears to be racing uncomfortably through a list of impersonal bullet points and monologues from his past successes (the opening of Peter Nichols' Joe Egg, for instance). When an audience member stood to leave after his presumed closing number ("The Colors of My Life" from Barnum), he shouted down from the stage "We haven't finished yet! Sit down!" At last, he was connecting with his audience.
Fortunately for Dale, to quote his character in Barnum, "there is a sucker born every minute," and plenty of them fill Off-Broadway houses.
Just Jim Dale closes August 10th, 2014 at The Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, New York, NY, 10036; Ticket Services: 212.719.1300 and roundabouttheatre.org, $79.