To the Tony Award, Academy Award nomination and 10 Audie Awards (“the Oscars of the narrating world”) claimed by Jim Dale should go another honor, Best Announcement Asking You to Turn Off Your Cellphone Before the Performance Begins. The competition improves every year, but it’ll be hard to top his delightful contribution to the field, which precedes Just Jim Dale, his one-man show at the Roundabout. Showcasing the lyrical prowess that (almost) got him the Oscar, for the smash hit Georgy Girl in 1966, it has you laughing before the show starts, and the merriment never lets up for the next 95 minutes.
To my chagrin, this is only the second time I’ve seen Dale, a spry and youthful 78, onstage. The first was the company’s failed Threepenny Opera in 2006, from which he emerged unscathed with a Tony nomination. But as a refresher you do get his greatest hits: a bit of Scapino, the show that brought him to Broadway in 1974, songs from Barnum, his Tony winner in 1982, and an audience participation gag from the acclaimed revival of Joe Egg, in 1985. Much of the show is however rooted in his personal history with the British musical hall tradition, which informs all his work.
Dale was, at age 17, the youngest professional comic on the British stage – this after six years of dance training, which, as he says, made him a real-life Billy Elliot, though one who was just as quick on his feet with a quip as a step. (It was that or go to work in a “Dickensian” shoe factory that was decidedly not Kinky Boots.) With a pre-Beatles George Martin as his producer, Dale had several hit singles in the UK, then he branched out, into film, TV and theater. The audio work for which he’s perhaps best known, providing hundreds of distinct voices for the Harry Potter universe, came later in life, and began with flop sweat and a disastrous first session in a recording booth that is hilariously recounted. For all his accomplishments, it’s comforting to know that he’s still plugging away and trying to get it right, an eternal busker.
With Mark York at the piano and Richard Maltby, Jr., directing, Dale gets everything right here, from “The Lambeth Walk” (from Me and My Girl, in which he followed Robert Lindsay on Broadway) to a dizzying recitation of Shakespearean quotes that have entered everyday usage. Just Jim Dale? Yes, but as he contains multitudes, there’s plenty of him to go around.