Theater: The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby
Howard Steven Frydman
A happening– I have been part of a “happening” – a Jack Kerouac moment – a Jimi Hendrix flashpoint, a Dickens of a pause in time! NO this is not a 60’s thing- I have just witnessed a true happening!! A special event that the term special just doesn’t seem right to explain what you have just experienced- an event that has been so designed to evoke a deep spontaneous reaction to sensory, emotional and even ones spirit! These “happenings” don’t happen all the time but you certainly know it when you find ones self in the middle of it. The last one I was involved in took place on a cruise ship, when 4 faux Beatles did an impromptu 4 hour midnight musical performance for a very select few including myself- I have a bit of video to show disbelievers about this Beatles happening. This current “happening” most earnestly took place recently at the Hartt School for music, dance and theater at the University of Hartford. I was expecting an evening of great theater but didn’t know that it would be one of those “once in a lifetime happenings” that I will now recount to you. But what made it so special – two worlds in perfect harmony – the Hartts students and staff- and it was Dickens that was the cause!! Yep that Charles Dickens!!
Firstly, please be aware that this is not a review but my deepest admiration for the teaching staff and the highest Caliber of student talent displayed on the Hartt stage – and for this observer this stage and its performers could have easily been on Broadway or in England’s West End!! The production-the Royal Shakespeare Company’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Novel- “The Life and Adventure of Nicholas Nickleby” – directed by Hartt Theater Division staff including: Professor Robert H. Davis, Annmarie Davis and Division Director Alan Rust- I will get back to Mr. Davis and his performance in a moment. This production over 7 hours in length, served up in two parts over 6 days with over 50 actors, incorporating musicians, dancers, and an incredible massive Victorian set design and culminating between parts 1 and 2, on the evening I was present, with a delicious Dickens inspired dinner served in the noble 1877 Club on the college campus.
For those not familiar with Dickens 3rd novel, “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby”, a tale originally presented in serial form, it tenders the account of one Mr. Nicholas Nickleby, whose father passes away unexpectedly after losing all of his money in a poor investment. Nicholas, his mother and young sister, Kate, are then forced to give up their country home in Devonshire and travel to London to seek the assistance of their only relative, Nicholas’s uncle, Ralph Nickleby. Ralph, a cold and ruthless businessman who cares only for money and has no desire to help his now destitute relations. Ralph finds Nicholas a low-paying job as an assistant to the crusty and obnoxious Wackford Squeers, who runs a boys school in Yorkshire. Once at the school Nicholas realizes that Squeers is running one heck of a racket – he takes in unwanted children, illegitimate, crippled or deformed for a fee, starves and mistreats them, while using the money sent by their parents lavishly on his likewise cruel wife, “eager to find a husband” daughter and loutish son. At the school, Nicholas befriends the crippled and dim-witted boy named Smike who serves as a servant to Squeers and his wife. And thus the adventures of N.N. begins with an escape from the school and an ever continuous introduction of friends, foes and the eventual unveiling of secrets and mysteries being solved.
As stated, this lavish production is made up of both Hartt staff, 3rd and 4th year students and various “celebrities” including University of Hartford President Walter Harrison and past president Professor Humphrey Tonkin. The students performances- I am still kvelling- so filled with praise for ALL these students including that of Stephen Mir who wonderfully portrays Nicholas and that of Alexander Settineri who brings a tear to ones eye in his portrayal of the tender and meek Smike. That Happening moment for me is in seeing various staff members on stage during this production as well, including that of the heavenly Johanna Morrison, so be-loved by her students that many of them have told me such wondrous tales of her language and voice class that even I would like to audit her class in my effort to speak perfect “English”; my friend Alan Rust, Division Director, whom initially invited me to the Hartt School to “take in” a performance two years ago and now find myself continually praising and applauding these talented students in my various blogs and columns; and finally Robert H. Davis, Professor of Acting, Voice and Speech- who portrays Ralph Nickleby- an EXTRAORDINARY performance -his character was so deliciously misanthropean and menacing – in fact Robert would be perfectly cast as the next James Bond villain- yes deliciously evil and a well perfected portrayal.
I also want to take note of the talented Bill Kux who portrays Ned Cheeryble in this production- for those in the know, Bill Kux, Alan Rust, Robert Davis and the enchanting Johanna Morrisson have appeared together in another Dickens of a production- the annual The Hartford Stages’ -“A Christmas Carol”- and on this very night, sitting right behind me in the theater enthralled by the performance sits Marley- Noble Shropshire and even Scrooge himself, the talented Bill Raymond,- the only one missing from this Scrooge Reunion is the extraordinarily talented Natalie Brown- who had portrayed Mrs. Fezziwig.
What’s up next for these students? In December many will be part of the already mentioned Hartford Stage production of A Christmas Carol; in January they will take part in The GoodSpeed Opera Houses 11th Annual Festival of New Musicals, or for more information please visit the Hartts website at http://harttweb.hartford.edu to take in a student performance- you’ll be so glad you did. Enjoy!
Howard Steven Frydman is General Manager and Executive Director of BATV – Channels 5, 95 & 96 and a member of the CCC.