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‘NICKLEBY'--MORE MAGIC ON THIS ROAD

“Nicholas Nickleby” was the theater news last week. It sailed into the Ahmanson on Sunday and absolutely took the harbor. Standing ovations have become a standing joke in Los Angeles theater, but how often do you hear people exulting about a show on the way out the door as if they just pulled off the daily double?

This, after 8 1/2 hours of sitting in the theater. That explains part of the jubilation, of course. We made it! But truth to tell, there was less of that at the Ahmanson than there had been at Broadway’s Plymouth Theatre when the Royal Shakespeare Company had first brought “Nicholas” to the United States in 1981.

At the Plymouth, the show had the aspect of a feat, pleasurable but somewhat grueling. At the Ahmanson, it was the equivalent of the book that you can’t put down, no matter how late it is getting.

“Nicholas” is based on a book, and much has had to be left out. But an incredible amount has been left in. Compare Ketti Frings’ dramatization of Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward Angel,” recently revived at the Pasadena Playhouse. The plot was nodded at and the major characters were dealt with, but the scale that Wolfe was working to was lost.

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In contrast, David Edgar’s adaptation of “Nicholas” has time to explore the crooked alleys of Dickens’ novel, to follow characters not necessarily crucial to the central action. We come out feeling, like Nicholas, that we have seen the world.

It’s not the world of 1986, in costume or manners or morals. Young people today aren’t as naive as Nicholas and his sister Kate (Michael Siberry and DeNica Fairman at the Ahmanson). Rich men aren’t as hard-hearted as their uncle, Ralph Nickleby (John Carlisle). Unmarried women of a certain age aren’t as dotty as Miss La Creevy (Eve Pearce).

Or maybe we just mask our impulses better. It could be that inside every modern man and woman there’s a Dickens character trying to get out. Anyway, his people seem oddly recognizable, for all their strangeness. If they’re not real as characters, they’re certainly convincing as characteristics . And they are astonishingly frank about stating their business.

Consider Wackford Squeers, the one-eyed schoolmaster (David Delve). A repulsive man. Today he’d be called a child-abuser. Still, one has to smile as Squeers informs Nicholas that he might as well stop referring to Squeers’ boys’ school as a “hall” now that they are in the country. “ ‘Cos the fact is, it ain’t a hall. We call it a hall up in London, because it sounds better, but they don’t know it by that name here.”

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A villain who knows his mind is welcome on any stage, and the bad people in “Nicholas” are committed to being bad. Happily, the good people are just as dedicated and just as energetic. The Cheeryble Brothers (Hubert Rees and Timothy Kightley) suggest an entity so bursting with benevolence that it has been forced to turn into twins.

Or take Nicholas’ second employer, that well-known man of the theater, Mr. Vincent Crummles (Tony Jay). His acting may be a little florid, but here is a man of true feeling.

Then there is his admirable consort, Mrs. Vincent Crummles (Pat Keen), who rules their little acting troupe as Brittania does the waves--one of her favorite parts, actually. The pageant that follows the Crummles’ version of “Romeo and Juliet” (and closes Part 1 of “Nicholas”) would amuse even dear Victoria.

Eight hours or so in the company of such characters is not hard to take. But having seen “Nicholas” twice before in the theater, and twice on television, this reviewer did wonder if the bloom wouldn’t be somewhat off the rose.

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In fact, the show struck me as more amusing, stirring, touching and life-enhancing than ever before. Why? The first reason may relate to a theory held by a man who had watched theater audiences from the lip of the orchestra pit for 40 years, the late Lehman Engel.

It was Engel’s belief that novelty and suspense were overrated in the theater. He felt that the stories we love best are the ones where we roughly know what’s going to happen. The fun is to see it all happen again, while noticing details we had missed before.

So, with “Nicholas,” the better you know the road, the more you can appreciate the scenery.

“Nicholas” doesn’t have any scenery, of course. John Napier’s set is an iron-faced frame, a machine for actors to do a show on. But watch those props. Two buckets of “snow” and we’re on the road to Dotheboys Hall with Nicholas and Squeers. A drooping house plant gives us the sickroom of Mrs. Wititterley, poor flower (Karen Archer).

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The company might almost be improvising “Nicholas” using some scraps of stuff that they happen to have backstage. And just as the actors are constantly changing identities (32 actors for 150 roles), so are the props.

Example: A metal frame that suggests a set of golden organ pipes when the pompous Mr. Lillyvick (Timothy Kightley) gets hitched to the vain Miss Petowker (Karen Lancaster) becomes the iron gate outside Juliet’s tomb when the Crummles’ company is manhandling “Romeo and Juliet.”

The viewer who has been down the road with the show has time to pick up on such niceties. One knows that there’s nothing at all impromptu about the show, that every effect has been worried out and double-checked. Still, there’s a sense of magic about how effortlessly it all falls into place. Theater at its best shows you the trick without lessening your belief; it happens time and again at the Ahmanson.

Another reason the show seems fresh is that most of its faces are new since the RSC played “Nicholas” on Broadway and on TV. But here, too, we are perfectly ready to suspend our disbelief and see Nicholas, for example, in a new light--not as a high-strung young chap with a tendency to internalize (the Roger Rees version) but as a generous young chap who tends to put his foot in it (the Michael Siberry version).

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Nicholas’ sister, Kate, is another example. Emily Richard didn’t make her into a hothouse flower but did stress the fineness of her feelings. DeNica Fairman makes Kate more of a Kate, robust, readier for a fight--again, her brother’s sister.

A character-by-character comparison isn’t needed. In general, the characters in “Nicholas II” are more sharply profiled than those in the original, more like the line drawings that might accompany a Dickens first edition. (John Lynch as Smike seems a Phiz drawing come to life.) Correspondingly, the characters are less nuanced, sometimes at a cost.

They are just as capably drawn. One of the pleasures at the Ahmanson last Sunday was to see that the RSC and the Shubert Organization hadn’t cut corners. This wasn’t a bus-and-truck “Nicholas” like that plastic version of “Sherlock Holmes” that the RSC once allowed to tour the States under its logo.

Even the band--when members came out for their bows at the end--was real. (Stephen Oliver’s music had sounded suspiciously bright, as if it might be on tape.) As for the Ahmanson’s sound system, it was hard to tell that it had been turned on, although one couldn’t imagine even RSC-trained actors being able to reach the balcony without electronic assistance. Magic again.

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How is “Nicholas Nickleby” best seen? Attending Parts 1 and 2 separately would give the viewer more time to savor each, but seeing them all in one stretch adds a certain momentum to the experience and probably increases the adrenaline at the very end. (The momentum starts to sag just before the very end.)

Separately or together, they are to be seen. Not because it’s the duty of every civilized family to attend this august theater event--do you believe those radio commercials?--but for a much simpler reason. “Nicholas Nickleby” is the biggest and best show in town.


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