Do not be fooled by the humble "just" in "Just Jim Dale." The showman -- raised on old British music-hall traditions and now an American citizen -- has been so many Jim Dales in so many surprising guises that they speed past in this charming, once-over-lightly 90-minute autobiographical solo.
To be precise, Dale -- wiry and jaunty at 78 -- is not alone up there within the cozy, mock old-fashioned proscenium the Roundabout Theatre Company has created for its breezy summer entertainment at the Off-Broadway Pels Theatre. He has his expert piano accompanist Mark York for company and, under the unobtrusive direction of Richard Maltby Jr., he shares just enough precious old photos to trace his lifetime of adventurous incarnations.
He wears his trousers high, with a belt and a silk shirt, a look that lets him appear old-fashioned for the reminiscences while freeing him to dance -- all elbows and knees and comic timing -- around the place. On Broadway, of course, he is best known as the daredevil song-and-dance man from "Barnum," 1980, for which he won a Tony, and for "Me and My Girl," 1986.
A new generation knows him as hundreds of voices in all seven "Harry Potter" audiobooks. But in London in the '60s, he played almost all of Shakespeare's clowns with an understanding he displays now in a dashing monologue he created from Shakespeare's invented words.
This is the kind of little show that makes one wonder how talent gets made. Surely, we wouldn't expect to find it in young Jimmy Smith, raised in the "dead, dead, dead center of England," with a father working in the iron foundry and his "mum" in the shoe factory. But the extended family used to get together for sing-alongs from the working-class music halls, and his father encouraged dancing lessons -- ballet, tap and something evocatively called eccentric comedy dancing. Oppressed by the prospect of joining his mother in the "Dickensian" shoe factory, the kid memorized all the music-hall jokes and, at 17, joined a teen touring variety show.
I repeat these details because, really, who knew? Then there were his years as a genuine pre-Beatles British pop star. And he wrote songs for movies, most famously, "Georgy Girl." The end gets rambling and sentimental with a love song to his wife, but he's entitled. He may not always have the best taste, but he clearly has known how to get the best out of life.
WHAT "Just Jim Dale"
WHERE Pels Theatre, 111 W. 46th St.
INFO $79; 212-719-1300; roundabouttheatre.org
BOTTOM LINE The many charms and faces of a showman.