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Off Broadway Review: ‘Just Jim Dale’

Just this veteran performer -- actor/singer/dancer/comedian/acrobat -- turns out to be more than enough in a sparkling solo show.

Jim Dale, with pianist Mark York.

The audiences at “Just Jim Dale” may be turning out to see the chap who gave voice to hundreds of characters as narrator of the entire series of Harry Potter audio books. But they leave the theater humming “Georgy Girl,” the infectious film song that won the British star an Oscar nomination. In the interim, they are royally wooed, pursued, beguiled, enchanted and thoroughly captivated by this actor / singer/ dancer /acrobat / music-hall comic / voice artist / lyricist and raconteur — a one-man band who lives only to make you laugh.

Who wound this guy up? One unmistakable clue is the unit set for this solo party piece. Anna Louizos’ nostalgic design presents a photographic view of an old-time English Music Hall, its faded glory caught and framed by the gaudy flashing lights of a cheesy proscenium arch. That evocative image imprints itself, becoming both theme and motif for this charming show.

The way Dale tells it — in song, dance, poesy, patter, and clever combinations thereof — he was only “so high” when his father took him to the local Music Hall, and that was enough to hook him for life.  Never mind the songbirds, the female impersonators and the trampoline acrobats, this little boy was bowled over by the antics of the quick-witted comics. Determined to join their roguish ranks, he stole their jokes, memorized their routines and, at the age of seven, was already working on an act of his own.

By using the Music Hall as his touchstone, Dale manages to coordinate the many facets of his theatrical career into the semblance of a narrative.  He got his first stage laugh, he remembers, at the age of eleven, when the little girl he was partnering failed to show up for a ballet competition and, in a burst of comic inspiration worthy of any top banana, he danced the pas de deux without her.  Re-creating that moment here, the thesp commands his long, loose limbs into balletic poses that show him to be surprisingly lithe and light on his feet, a hint of the hopeful young dancer he once was.

The Tony Award-winning helmer Richard Maltby Jr. understands revue structure, as he’s amply demonstrated in shows like “Ain’t Misbehavin'” and “Song & Dance,” and his directorial hand rests lightly on this material.  Unobtrusive support also comes from Mark York, the cheerful onstage pianist who monitors the heartbeat of the show.

For all the breezy fun of it, this entertaining party piece is very well organized.  An audience sing-along to the comic ditty “Turned Up” (which laments that everyone in the village turned up for Marry Ellen Bottomly’s wedding —  except the groom) is a fine introduction to Dale’s early days on the Music Hall circuit.  (At 17, he was the youngest comic on the boards.) An inspired novelty number with jaw-breaker lyrics — “You’re Quoting Shakespeare” — is perfectly placed after an homage to Shakespeare’s clowns (“the original music hall comics”).  “There Is a Sucker Born Every Minute,” the sparkling showpiece from “Barnum,” Dale’s first Broadway musical, makes an especially well-timed appearance — right after the fast-talking thesp (who won a Tony for playing “the greatest humbugger the world has ever known”) has suckered the audience with “one of the oldest Music Hall jokes I know.”

Just to show what a good sport he is, Dale makes up for that joke by telling one on himself.  (It has to do with the taping of the Harry Potter oeuvre, and we won’t spoil it for you.)

Impressive though it happens to be, Dale’s dramatic repertoire doesn’t fit comfortably into his thesis that the past and future history of comedy can be found on the stage of the English Music Hall.  This means that “Scapino,” which comes straight out of Commedia dell’Arte, makes the cut, but memorable productions like “Comedians,” “The Road to Mecca,” and “The Threepenny Opera” don’t come up at all.  To restore some balance, we do get a reading from Noel Coward’s “Fumed Oak,” and the evening ends brilliantly with a scene from the great “Joe Egg.”  (Big points for that one.)

Off Broadway Review: 'Just Jim Dale'

Roundabout / Laura Pels Theater; 410 seats; $79 top. Opened June 3, 2014. Reviewed May 29. Running time: ONE HOUR, 35 MIN.

Production: A Roundabout Theater Company production of a play in one act written and directed by Jim Dale.

Creative: Directed by Richard Maltby, Jr. Set, Anna Louizos; lighting, Rui Rita; sound, Carl Casella; arrangements, Mark York & Aaron Gandy; music director, Aaron Gandy; production stage manager, Charles M. Turner III.

Cast: Jim Dale, with pianist Mark York.

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