A ‘Nickleby’ with plenty of personality
Superlative cast gives life to Dickens’s classic
For his ambitious two-part production of “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby,’’ Lyric Stage Company’s producing artistic director Spiro Veloudos gathered together a constellation of top Boston actors and gave them a chance to shine.
And shine they do in the thoroughgoing triumph that is the Lyric’s “Nickleby,’’ although when it comes to Will Lyman and Nigel Gore, who carry the load of villainy here, it’s probably more accurate to say that they gleam with a dark, hypnotic menace.
Yet the true star of this enjoyable and moving production is one Charles Dickens. Academics continue to sniff at him for his mawkishness and his far-fetched plots, but “Nickleby’’ is a reminder that Dickens has few peers in the scope of his imagination, the force of his compassion, the timelessness (and timeliness) of his themes, and the sheer theatricality of his writing.
Indeed, in his hands, the page became a stage. So to undertake a theatrical adaptation of one of his most sprawling novels, as the British playwright David Edgar did 30 years ago for the Royal Shakespeare Company, is to situate Dickens in a natural realm. Veloudos has chosen to stage Edgar’s revised and shortened version, so “Nickleby’’ now lasts roughly six hours, spread over two performances. That still leaves plenty of time for Veloudos, with an assist from associate director Courtney O’Connor, to bring the teeming human carnival of “Nickleby’’ to robust life.
The scenario relies upon a Dickens archetype: Young people whose pure hearts are sorely tested as they make their passage through a world of corruption and depravity. In this case, it is the penniless Nicholas Nickleby (Jack Cutmore-Scott) and his steady-minded sister, Kate (Elizabeth A. Rimar), who must find a way to support themselves after the death of their father.
In our current economic quagmire, courtesy of Wall Street, it’s worth noting that Nicholas and Kate are in such dire straits because their father tried to improve the family’s financial situation by speculating in the market. However, Dickens tells us (and Veloudos reminds us by quoting the passage in a director’s note that underscores the story’s contemporary resonance): “The run of luck went against Mr. Nickleby. A mania prevailed, a bubble burst, four stockbrokers took villa residences at Florence, four hundred nobodies were ruined, and among them Mr. Nickleby.’’
His brother, Ralph Nickleby (Lyman), arranges a post for Nicholas at a nightmarish boarding school in Yorkshire, presided over by the cruel, one-eyed headmaster, Wackford Squeers (Gore), and his wife, Mrs. Squeers (Kerry A. Dowling). Squeers freely dishes out abuse to his young charges, reserving especially brutal treatment for a disabled youth named Smike (Jason Powers, in a poignant performance). This horrifies and infuriates Nicholas, eventually prompting him to make a moral choice, and a decisive stand, that will earn him the enmity of uncle Ralph.
Kate, meanwhile, lands a job first in a millinery shop, then as a lady’s companion. She becomes the sexual target of the predatory Sir Mulberry Hawk (Gore again), a situation her uncle Ralph — as ruthlessly unsentimental as he is avaricious — is willing to countenance as long as it serves his business interests. Ralph’s financial dealings are extensive, tangled, and shady, and they set in motion a variety of subplots whose connections, complete with implausible coincidences and plot twists, are revealed at the end in trademark Dickens style.
Amid the many digressions and scores of rapid-fire scenes that make up “Nickleby,’’ Veloudos maintains a coherent flow while drawing solid performances across the board from his 24-member cast, who play more than 150 speaking parts among them. One of the pleasures of this production is that it provides a showcase not just for established veterans — including Maureen Keiller, Leigh Barrett, Neil A. Casey, Peter A. Carey, and Larry Coen (amusingly bombastic as Vincent Crummles, impresario of a theater company that Nicholas and Smike join for a time) — but also for young actors who could, if they stick around, make signal contributions to the future of Boston theater.
One of them is Sasha Castroverde, an Emerson College graduate who pulls off the difficult trick of playing one character who is insanely, hilariously over-the-top (Fanny Squeers, daughter of the schoolmaster, who wrongly believes Nicholas is in love with her) and another character who is the genuine, demure object of Nicholas’s affections (Madeline Bray). Another is Daniel Berger-Jones, who adds to his growing roster of memorable portrayals with a vigorous turn as the jovial, outsize John Browdie, who intercedes on Smike’s behalf at a crucial moment.
As Nicholas, Cutmore-Scott, a London native and recent Harvard grad, delivers a nimble performance that is likely to accelerate his already speedy career ascent, while Rimar, a Boston University grad, endows Kate with a quiet dignity that intensifies our sympathy for the character as she is subjected to one ordeal after another.
But it is a pair of seasoned performers, Gore and Lyman, who brilliantly capture the faces of evil (in the case of Gore’s Squeers and Hawk) and cold-blooded greed (in the case of Lyman’s Ralph Nickleby) — a combination, Dickens never wants us to forget, that makes the world such a perilous place for vulnerable people like Nicholas, Kate, and Smike.
And it is the equally seasoned Veloudos who, with this audacious and frequently wonderful production, helps us to remember that when it comes to buoying the spirits or awakening the conscience, there is a lot more to Dickens than “A Christmas Carol.’’
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.