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  • Jim Dale is jumping for joy. Literally. He rushes from the single digit temperatures and Artic winds of the New 42nd Street into the warmth of West Bank CafÈ and shakes himself down. It may be downright frigid outside [January 2003], but Dale is filled with the warmth of the accolades he and his cast in Trevor Griffiths' Comedians are receiving. The New Group's revival, directed by Scott Elliott, has many critics touting the ensemble as the best so far this season. Ticket sales have warranted a move, not to the large Off Broadway or Broadway theatre the producers were hoping for, but from the 99-seat Samuel Beckett to the 199-seat Acorn in the same Theatre Row complex.

    "I don't know how I'll feel about that," says Dale. "It's my first 99-seater. Being in them, I always loved the intimacy; being onstage in one of them, I love it even more. The audience is right there in front of you. You don't have to do anything, you just have to be. It's not acting, you're just doing it. Of course, neither we or the producers can make any money in a 99-seater, but none of us [the cast] are doing it for the money. When I asked how much I would be paid, they asked, 'How much is your taxi fare?' Still," he smiles slyly as he pushes back his salt and pepper hair, "it would be nice if audience response keeps moving us into larger and larger theatres - until maybe we're on Broadway!"

    Dale plays a retired British comic who teaches a Manchester class of working class wannabes looking to better their lives. Opposite him, in the other showy role is Ra˙l Esparza, playing the sensitive, "bad boy" role Dale originated in the 1977 West Coast production. Originally done on the West End two years earlier, Comedians opened on Broadway in November 1976 starring Milo O'Shea and Jonathan Pryce. It played for four months. Though critics have been enthusiastic about Dale, Esparza and company as a fine acting ensemble, some found Griffiths' play dated.

    "I have an inkling why," Dale says. "One example is when my character Eddie Waters says to one of the fledgling comedians, 'That's a joke that hates women.' Trevor wrote it when he was in his late 30s. These days, it's more difficult to shock people. How can you possibly say that in 2003, when everyone has been inundated with Eminem and the outrageous people who call themselves comics do the most extreme jokes about women?"

    However, he feels this "old horse" is being treated quite well. "Like anything old, you treat it with respect. You don't kick an antique table. You carefully dust it, preserve it." Comedians, says Dale, focuses on the death of the great tradition of the English music halls, similar to our vaudeville, which was eclipsed by television and bingo halls.

    The time is the mid-70s and Eddie Waters, like so many other specialty acts, has no place to go. "He's been done in by the music hall policy of keeping the humor clean," notes Dale. "The comics moved on at week's end, but you had to get the audiences back again and again. If they were offended, they wouldn't return. And, especially in small towns, the music hall was, other than listening to the radio, the entertainment."

    In the play, Waters, once a brilliant comic, when faced with the new reality refuses to lower his standards. Rather than retire, he decides to teach the art of comedy and tries to convince his students to go against the odds -- that "clean" is the way to go ["Comedy is medicine, not colored sweeties to rot their teeth"]. Part of the tension derives from the humor and hostility of who'll tow his line and who'll betray his philosophy. As they step into the spotlight for the first time and, right before your eyes, die, it's more like these rookies have gone into battle instead of onstage.

    "Nothing is worse than a comic who can't get laughs," claims Dale. "It was a rare one, indeed, who could play those huge clubs seating two thousand people -- eating scampi, French fries and screaming their heads off and playing the slot machines. That poor bloke trying to attract their attention better be good. The agents scouting new acts and many of the comics felt the only way to do that was with crude humor. Give the public what they want."

    Having played Gethin Price in Los Angeles, Dale knew what a powerful piece of theater Comedians is. "The actor I played opposite (in the role of Waters) wasn't strong. I couldn't bounce anything off him. He wasn't give me anything. He was a good actor, but he didn't have a clue what it was like to be a stand-up or an old-timer from the music halls. I did it from the time I was 17 [becoming the youngest comedian in that arena]. When Scott approached me and I read the script again, with 25 years of hindsight, it dawned on me that Eddie was a wonderful role."

    Not only did he want to work with Elliott, but, he adds frankly, "I hadn't worked in over three years. I wanted to get back onstage. The idea of doing it in a 99-seat theatre fascinated me. Scott didn't expect me to say yes so quickly and, when I did, he said, 'Now, I've got to cast the play!"

    He did, and with excellent results: William Duell, Max Baker, David Lansbury, Allan Corduner, James Beecherle, Jamie Harris, Ismail Bashey, David McCallum, Gordon Connell and Marcus Powell. "We're truly blessed to have so many remarkable actors," boasts Dale.

    [Trivia: for the bingo hall pianist, Dale suggested the "marvelous" actor/musician who played the part in Los Angeles: Gordon Connell, the veteran actor who's been on Broadway since 1962 and who's the husband of actress Jane Connell, who played opposite Dale in Me and My Girl and Crazy for You. "Gordon's one of the best pianists," brags Dale, "and in Comedians he's playing the very same songs he played in 1977. He had them stashed in his filing cabinet."]

    Dale explains that Comedians tests the cast's mettle. "They're being seen doing something very difficult. They're playing comics who aren't funny. It's hard for a good actor to be bad, but even harder for one to play a bad comic - because he doesn't understand what it's like to be a good comic."

    But when there's a payoff, adds Dale, it's big. "In the music halls and, later [in his 20s], when I played the clubs and heard two thousand people roaring in laughter, it was the most incredible feeling! When you go into that spotlight and get that first laugh and that grows into roars of laughter, the hairs on the back of your neck shoot up. Hey, I've made somebody laugh. They're coming toward me, but they're not after me! It's an incredible feeling. And you're off and soaring into space."

    Though he wasn't working onstage, don't think Dale hadn't been busy. For the last several years, he's provided the voices of several hundred characters on the Harry Potter audio books. He also portrayed Fagin in Cameron Mackintosh's lavish London revival of Oliver! There was a big, exciting role on the horizon. He was set to headline a stage adaptation of the 1953 fantasy film musical based on Dr. Seuss' The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. "I signed the contract on September 10, 2001, and, well, the rest is, as they say, history." He reports, "I haven't heard from the producers since."

    Dale began training for his orbit at age nine, studying tap, ballet, acrobatics and martial arts. In his early teens, he was already a veteran of amateur shows. After service in the Royal Air Force, where he entertained troops, he became a successful pop singer. In his 20s, he was hosting the top British TV rock 'n roll show. The legendary George Martin of Beatles fame took him on to produce his records. In 1966, Dale was "quite taken by surprise" when he was invited to do Shakespeare at the Edinburgh Festival. Four years later, at the personal request of Laurence Olivier, he joined the British National Theatre and played leads in a host of classics. From there, he went to the Young Vic, where he first played the title role in Scapino, which he co-adapted with Frank Dunlop. That led to movies and the West End and, in 1974, to Broadway where Scapino became one of the season's biggest hits.

    It's been non-stop movies, TV and stage roles here and over there since. Dale's something of a cult film figure here and in the U.K. for his antics in the popular Carry OnÖ series [now on DVD, with loads of his hilarious commentary]. He's received his share of theatrical accolades: 1975 Tony and Drama Desk Award nominations and the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Actor for Scapino; 1989 Tony and Drama Desk Awards for Best Actor in a Musical, Barnum; 1985 Tony nomination for Best Actor and the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Actor, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg; and 1995 Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards, Best Actor, Travels with My Aunt;

    And did you know that Dale won an Academy Award Nomination for his lyrics to Georgy Girl, which became a monster hit? He's written songs for numerous films, but he's a bit embarrassed to run down the titles of some of them.

    Just like Eddie Waters, Dale's been through it all. "I've always said I'd rather stay out of work than do crap. Unfortunately, that's often been the case. I've been sent up for a lot of much crap and I won't touch it with a ten foot pole. It won't bring me any good. I'd like those kind folks who've followed me for years and years wherever I've gone to always be proud."

    Even though he received a 1997 Tony nomination for Best Actor, Musical, the Hal Prince-directed Candide revival was one job he was less than pleased with. "Basically, I wasn't being me but being asked to fill someone else's shoes. That was frustrating."

    He says he can't look back on anything he's done and say it wasn't quality. "That's why I chose what I did and surrounded myself with the best people. And it couldn't get any better than it is in Comedians. It's a good crowd and we get on with each other. You create a little family and everyone's happy."

    Star-on-the-rise Esparza, with recent acclaim for his work in the Kennedy Center Sondheim fest, Jonathan Larson's tick, tick...BOOM!, sexy Riff Raff in the Rocky Horror Show revival and a later emcee in Cabaret, could pretty well pick his roles. Dale is beyond delighted that he came aboard. Some of the best moments in Comedians are between Dale and Esparza, especially their intense exchanges late in Act Two. Esparza plays a forerunner to what we'd call a performance artist. He's a young man ahead of his time, and what he does onstage doesn't have audience appeal.

    "Ra˙l is a daring actor," enthuses Dale. "Very few actors go to the extreme. He will. I admire his work ethic. I'm reminded of that lovely Christopher Logue poem : 'Come to the edge / We might fall / Come to the edge / It's too high! / Come to the edge / And they came / and we pushed / And they flew.' He goes to the edge. And he flies. And he doesn't crash."

    Then it's different at every performance? "Absolutely. The lines are the same, but you never know what to expect from either of us. That's the challenge. It's lovely. Whatever mood Ra˙l's in, or whatever mood I'm in, is what's taken onstage. Sometimes it can backfire!" Dale breaks up laughing. "One night he looked at this man in the audience and swore at him. He said, 'Come up here. Come on!" And the guy climbed up onstage. Afterward, Ra˙l said, 'I have no idea what I was doing. I realized, I've got him on the stage and now I have to get him off. He went a little too far. He got carried away. But, why not? It was exciting. That's what acting is all about. That's what makes acting fun!"


    Ellis Nassour is an international media journalist, and author of Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, which he has adapted into a musical for the stage. Visit www.patsyclinehta.com.

    He can be reached at [email protected]

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