Hail, hail, Jim Dale's all here! No less an exclamation seems adequate to celebrate the return to Broadway of so dazzlingly multi-talented an entertainer. The irrepressible prankster of "Scapino" has now become the uncontainable Phineas Taylor Barnum of "Barnum." As the supreme ringmaster of the jolly extravaganza at the St. James Theater Mr. Dale should be a cause for rejoicing long after the first-night cheers have ceased to reverberate.
In paying tribute to America's definitive showman and self-proclaimed Prince of Humbug, "Barnum" goes for the spectacular. The entertainment begins with calliope music in the foyer, clowns in the auditorium, and a curtainless stage festooned with ladders and bunting, and littered with the paraphernalia of the big top.
Composer Cy Coleman and his colleagues, lyricist Michael Stewart and litbrettist Mark Bramble, have obviously decided that splashy razzle-dazzle should be the main event. Director Joe Layton has aided and abetted them at every turn.
Musicians double as clowns and jugglers. A marching band makes an entry down the aisles. Choristers spin plates and there is a continuous flow of incidental acrobatics. Besides his numerous other displays of prowess, Mr. Dale at one point walks a tightrope as he serenades Jenny Lind (Marianne Tatum), occupying a balcony box. In "One Brick at a Time," juggling performers help Barnum and Mrs. Barnum (Glenn Close) put together the footings for an early Barnum museum.
Not surprisingly, the book tends to be relegated to sideshow status. The free- wheeling story concerns Mrs. Barnum's conflicting attitudes toward her husband's ballyhoo world, Barnum's relationship with Jenny Lind, and his brief, unsuccessful efforts to find fulfillment as clock manufacturer and politician. By the time of Mrs. Barnum's untimely passing, the supershowman has returned to his natural habitat of circuses and sideshows to join up with James A. Bailey.
The score is at its best in its patter songs (like "Museum") and in the rousing, strongly rhythmic numbers that lend themselves to plenty of rumbustious action. Early on, Terri White raises her voice and kicks up her heels as "The Oldest Woman in the World," Barnum's first attraction. The quite lovely "The Colors of My Life" and "Love Makes Such Fools of Us All," which introduces Jenny Lind to America, provide a lyrical contrast. For one of the most charming numbers, scene designer David Mitchell has devised oversized furniture and a huge, puppet- style elephant to miniaturize the figure of Leonard John Crofoot as Tom Thumb in the delightful "Bigger Isn't Better."
Theoni V. Aldredge's trunkful of funny and lovely costumes proves again that "Motley's the Only Wear." In their vividness and variety, they help make "Barnum" what it is -- a big bonanza of a show. And, in the words of the sideshow barker, a feast for the eye and ear. As for Jim Dale, he's simply amazing.