By Robert Sickinger; Based on the Novel by Charles Dickens
Music and Lyrics by Alaric “Rokko” Jans
Directed by Lissa Moira
Off Broadway, New Musical
Runs through 5.4.14
Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue
by Eleanor J. Bader on 4.21.14
Becca Gottlieb in Nicholas Nickleby. Photo by Peter Welch.
BOTTOM LINE: An entertaining, if intentionally melodramatic, musical drubbing of Victorian England’s one percent.
Life rarely turns out the way we expect, or hope, it will. And while it sometimes serves up unexpected pleasures, more often than not, there is a mix of disappointment and joy.
Such is the case for Nicholas Nickleby Jr. (adeptly played here by the talented Douglas McDonnell). After Nicholas’ dad passes on, the family -- 19-year-old Nicholas, his sister Kate, (Stephanie Leone) and mom (Karen Kohler) -- fall into the clutches of miserly capitalist Ralph Nickleby, (performed with haughty condescension by the terrific William Broderick), the brother of Nicholas Sr.
In short order, Ralph sends Nicholas Jr. to work as a teacher in Boys’ Hall, essentially throwing him to the curb while urging him to “seize fortune by the throat.” Predictably, conditions at the Victorian-era school are abysmal. Its proprietor, Master Squeers (David F. Slone, Esq.), abuses his charges and seems to take particular pleasure in tormenting the school’s oldest pupil, an illiterate teen named Smike (depicted with clueless charm by Jonathan Fox Powers).
Nicholas is shocked by what he sees, having been largely sheltered from the world’s misery. His angst over Smike’s treatment is revealed in song: “Avarice and malice, desperate need. He suffers for his master’s greed with no one by his side.”
Over time, Nicholas and Smike bond and after a rip-roaring fight between Nicholas and Squeers, the pair leave the school in search of a better life. Along the way they encounter homeless waifs and ragamuffins, women of the night, predatory males, a theater troupe, and poorhouse denizens. Their encounters with society’s outcasts are both powerful and campy.
Indeed, Sickinger’s adaptation achieves a near-perfect balance between entertainment and messaging. That said, a scene in which ill-clad kids elbow their way into the audience to beg for scraps and pennies is jarring, a clear testament to Dickens’ affinity for the downtrodden.
While the play is a bit too long -- an early scene in which members of Crummles Theater Troupe demand a shift from the classics to more socially-relevant material never fully connects to the rest of the production and the over-the-top flirtation of Fanny Squeers’ (a leering Becca Gottlieb) with Nicholas gets tiresome -- it is nonetheless a well-realized play. The songs of Alaric “Rokko” Jans are clever and the choreography is lovely, no small feat for a 34-member cast.
What’s more, the 99 percent -- workers, the poor, and those on the receiving end of life’s inequities -- are the clear victors in Nicholas Nickleby. This, in concert with a smidgen of romance, a few laughs, several beautiful dance numbers, and some great singing makes this incarnation of the play worthwhile and potent. The pity is that musical adapter Robert Sickenger (1926-2013) did not live to see his creation brought to the New York stage.
(Nicholas Nickleby plays at Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue, through May 4, 2014. Performances are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8PM and Sundays at 3PM. Adult tickets are $18; children under 12 pay $12. To purchase tickets visit theaterforthenewscity.net or smarttix.com, or call 212.254.1109.)