“No more melodrama, we can’t take it anymore,” belted the 35-strong cast of Nicholas Nickleby: A Musical Adaptation at the Theatre for the New City. The self-mocking opening number prepared the audience for a caricatured adaptation of Charles Dickens’ third novel.
Robert Sickinger, a Chicago playwright known for staging unconventional adaptations of classical plays, wrote this production’s convoluted “play in a play” plot, which opens on The Crummles Theatre Troupe in Victorian England. The troupe, which features in the actual novel, hands out roles and scripts for their upcoming production of Nicholas Nickleby.
Dickens has apparently given the troupe an advanced copy of the novel’s ending.
Over the next two and a half hours, The Crummles Troupe perform their version of Nicholas Nickleby with the occasional fourth-wall break to acknowledge certain absurdities and to remind the audience which layer of the production they’re watching. For instance, Mr Vincent Crummles (David F. Slone), Mrs. Crummles (Karen Kohler) and Ninetta Crummles (Amanda Yachechak), all act as themselves as well as other characters in the nested play – a confusing structure if left unreferenced.
While the double roles keep the audience concentrating, it also showcases the actors’ wide range of performance. Remarkably, Jonathan Fox Powers plays both Smike, a hopeless abandoned child who is given hope by Nickelby’s arrival at Dotheboys School, and Sir Mulberry Hawk, an aggressive suitor for Stephanie Leone‘s Kate Nickleby.
Alaric Jans, composer and lyricist for the production, presented the audience with a good mixture of plot-pushing musical monologues and catchy tunes, including a number played on the spoons.
Vocally, it was Douglas McDonnell‘s titular character that stole the show. His operatic voice emulated the strength of his character, Nicholas. And, as far as my untrained ear could tell, the rest of the cast didn’t hit a flat note all night. Every cast member comes from a theatre background of varying degrees with years of experience on stage.
On a stage with sparse set-design and minimal costume changes, the actors transported the audience to Victorian England through their impeccable and distinct upper and lower class British accents.
A strong critic of social stratification, Dickens’ novels are known for their sentimental scenes and idealistic protagonist to sugar coat the ugly social injustices he brings to the fore. The director, Lissa Moira, and the cast check all these boxes with tearful goodbyes, melancholic romance and the demise of an abusive schoolmaster.
It is unclear, however, what is gained by producing Nicholas Nickelby as a metafiction (a work of fiction that draws attention to the fact that it’s fiction), besides comedy. Dickens was a master at holding up a mirror to society. It’s hard to imagine what more could be added.
“It is a hopeless endeavour to attract people to a theatre unless they can be first brought to believe that they will never get in.” (Nicholas Nickleby, Chapter 30)
Nicholas Nickleby: A Musical Adaptation is playing at the Theatre for the New City, 155 First Avenue, only until May 4.
Photos by Peter Welch Photography
Amanda Yachechak, Karen Kohler, David F. Slone, Luba Mason & Stephanie Leone
Luba Mason & Jonathan Fox Powers
Douglas McDonnell as Nicholas and Stephanie Leone as Kate Nickleby