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`Nickleby' on Broadway: spectacular success

``You,'' says Nicholas Nickleby to Vincent Crummles, a new acquaintance who will soon be one of his mentors, ``are theatrical!'' Mr. Crummles accepts the label with much pleasure. A ham down to his bones, and chief of his own strolling company, he walks and talks like an actor whether the curtain is up or down. In any context other than Nicholas Nickleby's life story, this Mr. Crummles might seem a very odd character, indeed. But the genius of Charles Dickens has a way of making delightful sense out of such eccentric individuals.

And so does the Royal Shakespeare Company, whose epic stage version of ``The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby'' is making its second United States visit. From their opening narration to their closing tableau, they show a keen understanding of the irony, humor, compassion, and sheer joy of living that drives Dickens's stories and the characters who crowd their pages. And just as important, they share Mr. Crummles's most endearing quality: These people are theatrical!

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Although the production's current incarnation is bursting with life and wit, it does seem that ``Nicholas Nickleby'' is faring less than robustly during its latest American stay. Its recent nine-week engagement in Los Angeles racked up a significant loss, according to the trade newspaper Variety, and early ticket sales in New York have been sluggish.

This may prove a self-correcting condition, however, as ``Nickleby'' settles in on Broadway (at the Broadhurst Theatre) and travels to other cities, which the troupe reportedly hopes it will. A production so big, bright, and beautiful should have little difficulty finding an eager audience, once word of its excellence -- not only in its near-legendary past, but right now -- starts to spread.

The test of any Dickens adaptation, in my view, is not so much a matter of completeness -- although at more than eight hours long, this ``Nickleby'' passes that one with honors -- but rather of capturing the great author's unique spirit. This manifests itself in the ``Nickleby'' novel -- about a young man finding his fortune despite innocence and ignorance of the world -- as a blend of high humor and broad melodrama that's extravagant even by Dickens standards. When he started ``Nickleby'' in 1838, he had already shown his comic ingenuity and made a start on the social commentary that would play a dominant part in ``Bleak House'' and later works. Nickleby occupies a fascinating in-between niche, with Dickens still bubbling with the uninhibited humor of ``The Pickwick Papers'' but fresh off the more caustic vision of ``Oliver Twist'' and on the way to the dark rumblings of the underrated ``Martin Chuzzlewit'' and the astounding ``A Christmas Carol.''

The key to making ``Nickleby'' a successful work for performance, therefore, is balancing its rollicking comedy -- sometimes outrageously physical, often purely verbal -- with its unabashed drama, which is entirely serious, although it veers into pathos and bathos more than once.

Happily, the Royal Shakespeare Company has managed the feat with spectacular success, by the simple expedient of taking Dickens as literally and literately as possible. By embracing what some modern readers feel are his excesses (the sentimentality, the extremes of ``good'' and ``bad'' personality, and so forth) as well as the story twists and jokes and character sketches that are his most popular contributions, the troupe has created a theatrical world that's theatrical in Dickens's own terms. And given Dickens's great love for theater, and for personally giving performances of his own works, a more appropriate achievement can't be imagined.

Credit goes partly to David Edgar, who adapted the novel to the stage, and to directors Trevor Nunn and John Caird, who have choreographed a cityful of characters within the huge and ingenious setting designed by John Napier from an original plan by Dermot Hayes and himself. Other fine contributions include Andreane Neofitou's colorful costumes, David Hersey's expressive lighting, and Stephen Oliver's mood-enhancing music.

One's greatest applause must be reserved for the players, however. In the title role, Michael Siberry pulls off the delicate stunt of carving out Nicholas's own personality while acting as a focus for all the other characters to swirl around. As the hero's Scroogelike uncle, John Carlisle makes an appropriately buzzardlike villain, although he seems a bit stiff in the penultimate scenes when his skulduggery is coming home to roost. DeNica Fairman and Frances Cuka are solid as the main women in Nicholas's life. In other crucial roles, David Delves is a credibly rotten schoolmaster, Jane Carr is his hilariously awful daughter, Tony Jay is delicious as Mr. Crummles the ham, Timothy Knightley is a properly pompous tax collector, Clive Wood is a hissable lecher.

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And a special nod goes to the most openly Dickensian performance of all, recalling a classic Cruickshank illustration in some old Dickens edition -- that of John Lynch as the pathetic schoolboy Smike, bent pitiably out of shape by his unendurably hard life, forever scuttling about the stage with one hand held before his chest in hopeless self-defense, the other weakly thrust out as if to ward off a forever-expected blow. It's a very special bit of acting.

``Nicholas Nickleby'' has moved into the Broadhurst for a 13-week run. Its pleasures couldn't be more inviting.

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