Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby"

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"THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF NICHOLAS NICKLEBY"

by David Edgar, from the novel by Charles Dickens
directed by Spiro Veloudos – associate director: Courtney O’Connor

Nicholas Nickleby … Jack Cutmore-Scott
Kate Nickleby … Elizabeth A. Rimar
Mrs. Nickleby … Maureen Keiller
Ralph Nickleby … Will Lyman
Newman Noggs … Peter A. Carey
Smike … Jason Powers

ENSEMBLE:
Leigh Barrett; Neil A. Casey; Sasha Castroverde; Larry Coen;
Daniel Cohen; Michael Steven Costello; John Davin;
Kerry A. Dowling; Nigel Gore; Eric Hamel; Hanna Husband;
Daniel Berger-Jones; Grand MacDermott; Joseph Marrella;
Janelle Day Mills; Sally Nutt; Alycia Sacco; Erica Spryres

Like many American theatregoers, I could not afford tickets to THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF NICHOLAS NICKLEBY when The Royal Shakespeare Company brought its acclaimed production to Broadway in the early 1980s (its tickets were $100, each, back then). Thirty years later, The Lyric Stage Company of Boston is giving NICKLEBY its New England premiere where you can see for yourself what all the fuss was once about.

That thirty years’ passing has not been kind to this NICKLEBY: the plot remains as timeless as a fairytale --- Nicholas Nickleby, a noble youth, is forced to seek his fortune in the world (i.e. mid-19th century England), encountering numerous comic, wicked, or poignant characters en route to his happy ending --- but what was once a Must-See is now a very long Play in two parts, the original challenge being to bring an entire Dickens novel onto a stage rather than on film, using any and every theatrical trick to pull it off; a challenge that the RSC rose to and won, along with numerous awards. (Oddly, when the same RSC production was later televised, it was mere Masterpiece Theatre --- no, the excitement clearly lay in its stage reenactment.) The RSC had several pluses in its favor: first, Mr. Dickens is part of England’s literary heritage, just as Mr. Twain is distinctly part of our own; second, being an island nation, England is still “pure” enough in its physiognomy to produce actors’ faces right out of George Cruikshank’s illustrations, along with the proper and various accents (in America, Brit-accents are either Drawing-Room or Cockney); third, the RSC, being a government-subsidized theatre, had the ensemble, space and months and months of rehearsal-time to bring this challenge to life. These days, what American theatre can afford to mount NICKLEBY which demands at least two dozen actors and to rehearse them at leisure? (The Lyric Stage partially answers that question by offering NICKLEBY as its only fall production between now and Christmas.)

And, so, how does a theatre turn this Play back into a Must-See? In the Lyric’s case, the curiosity factor, alone, may lure you in: can its two dozen actors all co-exist in its modest three-sided-arena? Answer: yes, they can, and nimbly, too --- Janie E. Howland’s two-level setting adds much to the flow of traffic --- in fact, such limited space evokes Dickens’ teaming world quite nicely; unlike a recent Huntington production where its cast had to be carefully arranged to fill up the B.U. barn, director Spiro Veloudos clearly had his hands full, keeping all of his ducks in a row --- what a pleasure, to see a large ensemble such as this, moving as one, including being their own scene-shifters! (Remember large-ensemble plays? Children, ask your parents…) A second lure: Mr. Veloudos has assembled a solid showcase of actors, Equity and non-; if you wish to sample the current strength of Boston theatre, look no further --- however, if you’re expecting a ripe, textured Dickensian cast with consistent British accents, you might be disappointed. Mr. Veloudos directs (drills?) briskly --- at times, too briskly --- Part One seems under-rehearsed and rushes by, leaving little impression (to be fair, Part One taxes one’s memory with its constant introductions and “meanwhile…”: this is Mr. Dickens in his serial-writing days); Part Two is far more satisfying: the scenes become longer, the plot-strands bind together, and the characterizations slow down and deepen. Two of Rafael Jean’s costumes make excellent signposts --- those of Wackford and Fanny Squeers, where they are instantly defined by their hair and clothing --- the other costumes are functional, at best, and Mr. Jean makes a glaring cultural error: when Mrs. Crummles ends Part One as Britannia, symbol of Britain, she should be wearing a plumed helmet; Mr. Jean crowns her with cow horns, instead --- would Uncle Sam be caught wearing a football helmet?

Jack Cutmore-Scott is a superb Nicholas: dreamy in looks, forthright yet modest in declamation (I first (and last) saw him as the pouting, murderous hustler in the Publick’s ENTERTAINING MR. SLOANE) --- he is destined to become Boston’s next Young Man should he choose to remain in the area. Elizabeth A. Rimar matches Mr. Cutmore-Scott’s nobility as sister Kate, an ever-imperiled heroine who defends herself verbally (as a true lady would) --- their scenes together are believably filial as well as Victorian.

Mr. Veloudos has granted his three Equity actresses the chance to stretch some muscles: Maureen Keiller, best known as a comedienne, makes a delightful, feathery Mrs. Nickleby; Kerry A. Dowling plays the bitch Mrs. Squeers with undisguised relish (her warm-hearted Mrs. Crummles is akin to her SpeakEasy earth-mothers); Leigh Barrett steps down from her diva-dom to have a bit o' fun as the genteel Miss La Creevy and the raggedy Peg Sliderskew. If only Will Lyman (flint) and Nigel Gore (burlap) could not have been typecast as Ralph Nickleby (Mr. Lyman) and Mr. Squeers/Sir Mulberry Hawk (Mr. Gore) where they each do their familiar thing --- I wonder what sort of rascal Mr. Lyman might have made as Squeers (though his Ralph’s final scene makes me want to see Mr. Lyman humbled as Lear), and the role of Newman Noggs might have brought out the same vulnerability in Mr. Gore that made his tramp in THE SANCTUARY LAMP so memorable, years ago. Whether he knows it or not, Mr. Gore has developed a mannerism: this is his third characterization in a row where Mr. Gore puts his hands in his pockets, hitches up his shoulders and eases into a stroll --- three times: now, that’s a mannerism, and it reads “boredom” to me.

In the novel, Smike is an emaciated, simple-minded youth with a limp --- a figure of pathos; the RSC revised Smike as a retarded Grotesque, a victim of the encroaching Industrial Age. Mr. Veloudos has modified but continued this conception and Jason Powers is properly bobble-headed and pigeon-toed, but a Victorian audience would have been horrified at such deformity as Nicholas’ sidekick: theirs was the Age of the Child, and they preferred sentimental children to sigh and shed a tear o’er --- a small limp, if you please! --- Mr. Power’s Smike would have been afternoon viewing in Bedlam.

Larry Coen and John Davin are always welcome company, whatever they do, and Sally Nutt simply fascinates me: a feminine yet patrician character actress (Miss Haversham, anyone?). The rest of the ensemble more than hold their own; if only the Lyric could have the means to keep these two dozen actors as a permanent repertory company for then it would have an unrivaled assortment of ingénues, juveniles, clowns, tragedians, etc. and the space to contain ‘em all. THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF NICHOLAS NICKLEBY ends with a Christmas carol and all right with its world, but the true joy of the Lyric production lies in these actors: “Here we ALL are!” their curtain calls telegraph to their cheering audiences. Go, go, for who knows, in these thin days, when Boston shall next see so much talent on one stage, again?

"The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby" (21 October-19 December)
THE LYRIC STAGE COMPANY OF BOSTON
140 Clarendon Street, Boston, MA
1 (617) 585-5678

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