One of Jim Dale's many hit shows was the original Broadway production of the musical Barnum, by Cy Coleman and Michael Stewart.

One of Jim Dale's many hit shows was the original Broadway production of the musical Barnum, by Cy Coleman and Michael Stewart. (June 15, 2012)

Just Jim Dale

With Jim Dale and pianist Mark York. Through June 24 at Long Wharf Stage II, 222 Sargent Dr., New Haven. (203) 787-4282. $30. www.longwharf.org

 

To put a Music Hall spin on it, Jim Dale is not over the hill. At 77, he’s as vital and courageous a performer as he was at 27, when he became the bumbling juvenile in Carry On Cabby, Carry on Cowboy and half a dozen other films in the Carry On… series. He’d already done a few years on the boards as “the youngest professional comedian on the music hall stage,” if you believe his press, touring across England while in his late teens. By his early 20s, he was a pop star, discovered by George Martin before The Beatles were. Then came the Carry On… series, and several years with Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre Company. In his 30s, history repeated itself somewhat when Dale made a couple of Disney comedies (the Western parody Hot Lead and Cold Feet with Don Knotts, and the fantasy Pete’s Dragon) but chose not to do more because he considered the stage his first love. The fondness was requited when he won a Tony Award as Best Actor in 1980.

Jim Dale’s romance with live theater, and with his music hall roots is being reborn this month at Long Wharf Theatre with a workshop of his one-man show Just Jim Dale. With just 90 minutes to cover his 60-year career, Dale says a lot gets left out. As he told me in a phone interview earlier this month, he’s barely able to mention the Carry Ons, which he tells me he only stopped doing because the shooting schedules conflicted with the Wednesday matinees of his National Theatre performances.

“Music Hall has influenced my whole life, everything I’ve done.”

Jim Dale is a connoisseur of physical comedy, and still one of its greatest living practitioners. “It’s difficult to find young actors” who can handle such classic clowning as he extolled in his famous Moliere adaptation Scapino, Dale fears, though he has seen One Man Two Guvnors and deems it “very good indeed.”

Just Jim Dale, for which the star tells autobiographical anecdotes, acts a few monologues, and sings a dozen songs accompanied by pianist Mark York, had an earlier workshop last summer at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center in Waterford. Dale was heartened by how “the students there, who usually sneak out early” at a lot of shows, seemed to stick around to see his. “I’m hoping to get a younger audience,” he says. “It’s not an evening of readings. And I do mention Harry Potter”—an entire generation knows Jim Dale mainly for his audiobook performances of all ofJ.K. Rowling’s novels, in which he created separate voices for hundreds of different characters.

The show is about “the many branches of show business I’ve explored,” Dale explains, starting with his earliest boyhood ambitions to go on the stage. “It’s best to start off at Square One, whatever game you’re playing.” As for the rest, “it’s taken a long time to pick and choose. There’s no time,” for instance, “to talk about the Disney films,” though he says he still meets fans of those pictures. He touches on his dramatic range, but the show apparently doesn’t allow him to wax philosophical, as he did in our phone chat, about how “the best training I could have received as an actor was as a stand-up comedian. Comedy led me to tragic roles.” He outlines how he sees comedy and tragedy as part of the same continuum rather than at opposite ends of a scale, describing a sort of Moebius strip where “if you bend that line, playing an alcoholic crawling on his knees could make you cry while a clown crawling on his knees could make you laugh.”

When I note the major changes which occurred in theater at various times in his long career—caustic writers like Peter Nichols (in whose plays Joe Egg and Privates on Parade Dale starred) flying in the face of the old clowns and drawing-room craftsmen—he expresses nothing but excitement. “These were neww opportunities. I guess there are certain actors, you know them, who only want to be put in roles of a certain kind, who always play essentially the same character. I never allowed myself to be put in any cubbyhole. I didn’t mind being a Jack of All Trades.

Which should make the show Just Jim Dale different from so many other one-person shows. He doesn’t have to prove his range, as some stars do—he’s always shown his range. He doesn’t have to rest on long-ago laurels—one of the best-known things he’s done is the most recent, his Harry Potter narrations. He doesn’t have to translate a British sensibility to stateside—he’s lived in America for decades, and has as big a reputation on Broadway as he does on the West End. He even has solid Long Wharf priors, as the star of Privates on Parade in the 1970s and Travels With My Aunt in the 1990s. He doesn’t have to find new material to mix in with monologues—he’s been singing, dancing and telling jokes for 60 years.

Just Jim Dale? Try Just Try Ignoring Jim Dale. He’s everywhere. And he’s especially at Long Wharf Stage II through June 24.

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