"John P. Keller is a classical theater savant with a formidable ability, not only, to perform extremely long pieces, but speed recite lines from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. It is simply astonishing to watch this man work. Keller's Nickleby is compassionate and serves as the self-aware narrator who is quick to point out the absurdity of a situation."
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Orlando Shakspeare's 25th Anniversary promised to be its biggest season yet. It's finally time to see what all the buzz is about. Totaling 6.5 hours, the hyped mega-spectacle THE LIFE & ADVENTURES OF NICHOLAS NICKLEBY lives up to its name. Make no mistake, it's a big production, but with the talented cast it does not feel like you're watching a lifetime.
Given the scope of THE LIFE & ADVENTURES OF NICHOLAS NICKLEBY, the production could have been too big for Orlando. But like a lot of things in Orlando we go all out, grabbing the best and using many local ties to create something magical. Of course there was the potential for the show to drag, but in reality it is quite the opposite. OST got this production right.
Part I begins with the death of Nicholas's father. Nicholas's mother and sister, Kate, move to London to seek the aid of Uncle Ralph. Without knowing the story there are several archetypal Dickens characters that will seem familiar. Ralph Nickleby may as well be Mr. Scrooge with his obsession for money and uncaring for the lives of others. Rather than instantly providing for the grieving trio, he finds work for the Nickleby children at pitiful wages. Nicholas is sent to work as a teacher for schoolmaster, Mr. Squeers, and Kate sent to work for Madame Mantalini in her dress shop.
At Mr. Squeers's Boy's School, Nicholas quickly realizes that it is not the high institution as described in the original advertisement. He watches as Squeers teaches the boys through abuse and intimidation. Nicholas also encounters the grotesque Fanny Squeers who falls in love with him, but the feel is not mutual. Nicholas meets Smike, who is a Tiny Tim-like character mixed with Quasimoto, which gives Nicholas purpose to remain at the school. Smike attempts to run away, but is caught and beaten by Squeers. Nicholas stands up to Squeers, beats him and runs away. Much happens in between, but eventually Nicholas and Smike end up in a performing troupe. Part I ends with a version of ROMEO AND JULIET that only Orlando Shakes can stash inside of an epic.
The show balances serious topics like child abuse and class differentials with theater humor. It even does well to poke fun at the production itself. It seems the whole theater is moving at times, with actors running throughout the walkways. The set is a two-story structure that is well functioning with a lot of moving parts. There is a LES MIS-esque feel from the set.
Speaking of actors running, there are 215 costumes used in this production and 27 actors to fill them. Earlier OST's costume stitcher, Rachel Dombi gave us a behind the scenes look of what it took to put it all together. A few actors exit in one location and enter in the next scene wearing a completely different costume and playing a different character. It is amazing how they keep it straight. To fill all the roles OST turned to TheatreUCF. The Orlando Shakespeare Company actors are joined by students and faculty from UCF's Theater Program, making this truly a hometown production.
Under the direction of Jim Helsinger and Christopher Niess, the massive production does not miss a beat. Even more amazing is the fact that Part I and Part II run together, sometimes both parts in one day. That means these actors are performing two different shows during the week and some playing more than 10 characters.
John P. Keller is a classical theater savant with a formidable ability, not only, to perform extremely long pieces, but speed recite lines from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. It is simply astonishing to watch this man work. Keller's Nickleby is compassionate and serves as the self-aware narrator who is quick to point out the absurdity of a situation.
Greg Thornton as Ralph Nickleby teeters between a character of great depth and wretched old man. There are moments of regret that are quickly brushed away by Nickleby's self-discipline. If he is a true Dickens character, Ralph may not be completely doomed.
Smike is a depressing character, but whose survival is deeply moving. Stephen James Anthony does a great job of showing Smike's physical and mental disabilities. At the same time, he's so genuine that you cannot help, but want the best for this character.
Stay tuned next week for my review of the ladies of NICKLEBY and Part II.
Part I and Part II of THE LIFE & ADVENTURES OF NICHOLAS NICKLEBY run in rotation at Orlando Shakespeare Theater now until March 9, 2014. I recommend seeing both parts within one week. The run time for Part I is about 3 hours, while Part 2 clocks in at about 3.5 hours, so be sure to eat beforehand. Come early to enjoy pre-show chats with the cast. For tickets and more information visit www.orlandoshakes.org.
Photo Credit: Landon St. Gordon