PROTO–CHRISTMAS CAROL You can spot precursors to Bob Cratchit everywhere in this overstuffed, eminently satisfying Nickleby.
Plenty of theaters make A Christmas Carol sing. But the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, under the frenzied baton of Spiro Veloudos, is rendering an entire Dickensian symphony in The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, a cacophony of vivid storytelling and Victorian theatrics that plays out over two three-hour installments (through December 19). Oliver Twist, gruel bowl in hand, famously asks for "more." Nickleby's abused Smike makes a similar request upon his first taste of liquor. But it's hard to imagine audiences not being satiated by this raucous, roughhewn display of Victorian economics, liberal compassion, picaresque exploit, and music-hall showmanship, all performed by 24 actors leapfrogging among 150 roles.
Dickens himself suffered the affliction of theatrics; even before his reading tours of two continents, he acted, directed, and wrote for the amateur stage. It is on this fact that British writer David Edgar seized in his Olivier- and Tony-winning 1980 adaptation of Nickleby for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Although much celebrated, the eight-and-a-half-hour account of pedigreed but penniless young Nickleby's pummeling by and then triumph over the social and economic injustices of Victorian England — not to mention his proto-Scrooge of an Uncle Ralph — was seldom revived. Then in 2006, Edgar shrank the play to six hours for a Chichester Festival production that moved to London's West End. The Lyric staging is built on the streamlined script.
One thing Edgar did not eliminate, I'm happy to say, was the play's loving re-creation of 19th-century theatrics. The peripatetic Part One begins with the performers working the audience and ends by cutting back and forth between our virtuous if volatile hero's stint with a provincial theater company and threats on sister Kate's virtue in London, with the finale a hilariously bowdlerized Romeo and Juliet in which, at the end of the tragedy, as was customary in the era, all of the corpses except Tybalt's spring back to life.
Part Two is darker but similarly stuffed, with Part One briefly reiterated at the outset and a jumble of narrative divided among the players not directly involved in the scenes. Here Nicholas, having soundly thrashed evil Yorkshire schoolmaster Squeers in Part One, takes on jaded Sir Mulberry Hawk, who has forced his sneering attentions on the lovely but defenseless Kate. Mercenary plots are thwarted and sad secrets unearthed as we jig through the tough London streets toward a happy ending for all but villains both scabrous and tragic. Along the way, the large cast serves not only as teeming populace but also as collective mouthpiece for Dickens decrying a society not unlike our own, in which "Life and death went hand in hand; wealth and poverty stood side by side; repletion and starvation laid them down together."
It's hard to know whether Lyric honcho Veloudos decided to do Nickleby upon discovering British-born recent Harvard grad Jack Cutmore-Scott or whether, having determined to do Nickleby, he fell to his knees and thanked Heaven upon discovering the actor. In any event, with Cutmore-Scott perfectly cast as the honorable if hotheaded Nicholas and Will Lyman bringing a squeezed, brooding intensity and bemused regret to his antipathetic usurer uncle, Veloudos corrals and orchestrates the largest production in the Lyric's 37-year history, not to mention its 240-seat house.