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Arts & Culture

2014 brings city-wide celebration of Charles Dickens

Orlando Shakes’ massive production of ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ plays the starring role

Photo: Photo by Tony Firriolo, License: N/A

Photo by Tony Firriolo

What’s left is the shaggy-dog story of two destitute siblings – impossibly naive Nicholas (John P. Keller) and improbably chaste Kate (Allison McLemore) – as they stumble up the social ladder. Antagonist Uncle Ralph (Greg Thornton) is Scrooge with a twist of Judge Turpin, while sadistic schoolmaster Squeers and salacious Sir Hawk (both Richard B. Watson) seem to have stepped straight out of Monty Python Presents Oliver! – if such a thing existed.

Nickleby is a stagecraft showcase: a terrific turntable set by Bert Scott, atmospheric lighting by Kevin Griffin, well-chosen wardrobe and wigs by Molly Walz and Jack A. Smith, all coordinated by unsung stage manager Stacy Renee Norwood with what must be Herculean effort. All the technicians and thespians deserve standing ovations. My issue is with the way they’ve been directed to embrace every opportunity for cartoonish comedy at the expense of honest emotion, turning Dickens’ satirical melodrama into a drama-free parody.

The audience never has time to fall asleep, thanks to the breakneck staging, wacky sound effects and bellowed narration. But every characterization is so buffoonish and broad that when a florid troupe of actors finally arrives, you can’t tell the hammy theatricals from the alleged aristocrats. Two fleeting moments of group movement speak poetically to the plight of the poor, but Dickens’ political purposes are otherwise absent. Only Steven James Anthony as the abused orphan Smike, buried beneath Halloween makeup and painful posture, is able to fully engage the audience’s empathy through his haunted eyes.

This production’s saving grace is that the cast and crew are almost all locals, rather than out-of-state imports. Local theatergoers have long known Orlando has enough artists to execute shows of any scale; if only they had a better production to prove it. So raise a glass to Dickens, but don’t allow anyone to make you feel unsupportive of theater for refusing to swallow Shakes’ spoonful of brimstone and molasses.

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