Charles Dickens' serialized novel The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby has been dramatized in countless stage and screen adaptations, most notably the 1981 Tony-winning version that ran nine hours over two evenings. It takes courage to attempt adapting this sprawling, plot-heavy epic into a compact three-hour running time--and in a tiny performing venue, no less. The gamble pays off beautifully for writer Gregory Blair and director August Vivirito in a gripping and lucid staging that captures the rich period ambience and juicy melodramatics of the 19th century classic.
Less proves to be more on the handsome and fluid bare-bones set designed by Vivirito and David Clark Smith, with its sliding panels, easily movable furnishings, and token suggestions of a London skyline. Tasteful costumes by Kiva Jump provide a pleasing variety of colors and textures. Against this sharp background, Vivirito spins the episodic tale with crisp pacing and solid characterizations, allowing the virtues of old-fashioned storytelling to shine through.
In a few instances, Vivirito allows actors from the 16-member ensemble to chew the scenery a bit too vigorously. Georgan George as the harridan wife of cruel boarding-house master Squeers (Scot Renfro), Michelle Simek as their bratty daughter, and Joy Nash and John Basiulis as ham-handed Shakespearean actors would benefit by reining their shrill portrayals in a notch or two. Beyond that, the actors' instincts are spot-on. Ethan Kogan is appropriately likeable as the beleaguered titular character, yet he wisely sidesteps the pitfall of playing Nicholas as a one-note paragon of unselfishness and nobility. His tender relationship with the beaten-down young outcast Smike (beautifully played by Jeremy Lelliott) forms the anchor for this heart-rending production. Jennifer Ruckman is strongly empathetic as Nicholas' long-suffering sister Kate. Steven Connor is effective as the despicable villain, Nicholas' uncle Ralph. Skip Pipo is superb as Ralph's kindly assistant, and Margaret Schugt excels as Nicholas' eccentric mother. Frank Kesby, Jonathan P. Markanday, Dominick Marrone, Aubrey Joy Saverino, and Scotty Servis lend fine support in multiple roles. This plum pudding of a show, overflowing with delicious ingredients, is a scrumptious holiday-season treat.
Presented by the Production Company at the Flight Theatre at The Complex, 6472 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Dec. 2-Jan. 15. (310) 869-7546.