A game, entertaining, but clunky version of a Dickens classic, with songs, dance and a cast of thousands.
By Joel Benjamin
The Royal Shakespeare Company took nine and a half hours to get through the convoluted, but entertaining, plot of Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby with only an occasional bit of music. So, it was brave for the Theater for the New City to present Robert Sickinger’s musical adaptation with music and lyrics by Alaric Jans. That this production comes in well under three hours is a credit to Lissa Moira the director whose work had to include a lot of wrangling and traffic directing of a very large cast which included some very personable young children.
Choosing the framing device of having the story told by the Crummles theatrical troupe was a tad awkward and too self-referential, but it did allow for an economical way to fit most of the plotlines into the show. The impoverished Nickleby family—Nicholas, his mother and his sister Kate—are the central characters who must deal with abject poverty, wicked Uncle Ralph, the Crummles’ acting entourage, the Squeers’ sadistic country school and many other indignities. That they find love, both fraternal and romantic, and their misfortunes are reversed, is a foregone conclusion in a Dickens story.
The songs are more expository and serviceable than emotionally involving. “Dotheboys Hall,” a falsely optimistic song about the Squeers’ school, had sunny irony while such songs as “Nine to Nine” and “Pay ‘Em Back” delved into the horrific lives of young ladies who are forced to work and the doomed boys at Dotheboys. There were upbeat numbers like “Sail, Sail Away” sung by Nicholas and his adopted brother, the pathetic Smike and the finale, “It’s Christmas Day.” Mr. Jans score also included several lovely, touching numbers such as “Corner of My Eye” in which Nicholas and his soon-to-be wife Madeline’s paths cross and “Hello, Miss Kate,” Smike’s heartbreaking lament.
William Broderick was the villain Ralph Nickleby for whom he provided strong singing and acting. Becca Gottlieb was both repulsive and funny as the tarty Fanny Squeers. As her repulsive parents, David F. Slone, Esq. and Luba Mason rivaled the Thenardiers of Les Miz. Ms. Mason had a great time with the full-bodied nastiness. Mr. Slone, Esq. was also the genial Crummles. His portrayals were probably the closest to Dickensian than any other cast member’s. As Smike, Jonathan Fox Powers, a boyish looking fellow, was, perhaps, a tad too robust for the part, but was nevertheless convincing. Rachel Daye Adams was a sweetly romantic Madeline and Stephanie Leone’s Kate certainly gave greater depth and strength to a maudlin role. In the dual and diametrically opposed roles of the fragile Mrs. Nickleby and the boisterous Mrs. Crummles, Karen Kohler was totally fine. Chris Neher’s Newman Noggs, a part cut almost to nonexistence here, worked hard to make an impression.
As Nicholas, Douglas McDonnell, with his operatic baritone and boyish good looks, was perfectly cast, although he is not the subtlest actor.
This was quite a large production for the Theater for the New City requiring what seems like hundreds of costumes designed by Jennifer Anderson and a big open set, embroidered with period-looking furnishings, by Mark Mercante. An awkward curtain across the front of the playing area, though, was annoying. Alex Bartenieff’s lighting created all the proper moods. The less said about Carlos Gomez’s anachronistic and gushy choreography, the better.
*Photos: Peter Welch
Nicholas Nickleby: A Musical Adaptation (through May 4, 2014)
Theater for the New City
155 First Ave. (between 9th & 10th Sts.)
New York, NY
Tickets: 212-868-4444 or www.smarttix.com
More Information: www.TheaterForTheNewCity.net
Running Time: 2 hours 50 minutes with one intermission