CLEVELAND -- Does "Nick Nick" transplant? To Cleveland? The answer: a loud, roaring YES.
When Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company revealed its 8 1/2-hour production from Charles Dickens' "The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby" to Broadway last fall, some questioned whether Americans would be able, or would even try, to mount the marathon script. Then it was announced that the first American transplant would be in Cleveland. Cleveland? Theater mavens shuddered and looked the other way.
Now the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival has done it, handsomely, con brio. Instead of $100 for the two performances its importers needed on Broadway, both parts can be seen at a scale running from $31.50 to $39.95. And the sold-out run has been extended through Oct. 10.
The major credit, for both London's production and Cleveland's, goes to Trevor Nunn. The director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, visiting Leningrad's fusty Gorki Theater (which was spending the year on a production of "Pickwick Papers") got to musing on stage adaptations of Dickens.
Recalling that these invariably are cut to the bone, Nunn conceived the idea of a production that would include all of a Dickens novel. He settled on the theatrically eventful "Nicholas Nickleby" and had his entire company collaborate on evolving a dramatic form. It would take a hectic year, David Edgar would assemble the script, triumphs would follow. After three London engagements and a limited Broadway visit, the original is to be seen on four consecutive evenings of two-hour American telecasts Jan. 10-13, 1983.
So now Cleveland has picked up the ball, but no traditional American tour is scheduled. What, then, is the future of this unique script? Only firmly established, self-assured institutions are likely to take on the challenges inherent in its performing and technical demands.
It posed a superb opportunity for the Kennedy Center, but no one at the center had the imagination or the knowledge to see how it might have presented this work across the land. What a chance it missed.
A few commercial institutions are interested in Cleveland's hit, but with their own seasons about to begin, the plans are on hold. More modest American institutions are considering how they might fit "Nick Nick" into their futures.
Why was Cleveland the only one to take on the challenge?
Its Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival started 21 years ago in a high school auditorium of suburban Lakewood. Seven years ago, it took on its first full-time producing director, Vincent Dowling. A Dublin-born U.S. citizen who had either acted or directed in a score of American cities, Dowling had developed vast confidence in and acquaintanceship with regional theaters.
As soon as he heard of Nunn's production, he asked for the American rights. Just to get the 600 photocopied pages of Edgar's script cost 50 British pounds, but Dowling hasn't regretted one pence of expenditures, which now have reached about $550,000. And his festival board, headed by feisty president Natalie Epstein, has upheld his decisions to make a splash with uncommon enthusiasm; which means they came up with the green stuff.
The reason for this heady, but by no means exorbitant, budget ties into a larger Cleveland picture, Playhouse Square.
Along Euclid Avenue, a few blocks from Halle Bros. department store and the Hanna Theater is a square block containing four adjacent theaters -- the Allen, Ohio, State and Palace. They had their heyday in the 1920s. Twelve years ago, demolition was about to begin, but formation of the Playhouse Square Association changed the city's future. Although it ultimately will cost millions, the project began modestly and owes much to its volunteers.
These are grand-scaled palaces of the prime movie palace period: spectacular murals, glittery chandeliers, marble halls, lavish dressing rooms, all coming back to life in a complex that will have some 8,000 seats, more than New York's Lincoln or the District's Kennedy Center.
Spokesmen for the complex are confident of finding area audiences and attractions for their stages: "We have our ballet and opera companies. There'll be special events for the Palace, musicals for the State. And so the Great Lakes Festival was invited to make its new home in the Ohio theater, originally built not as a film or vaudeville house but as a legitimate theater with exceptionally large stage space."
Thus, the festival this summer shook off the limitations of suburbia for the rigors of the inner city. "Knowing that this would be a major move for us," Dowling said, "we decided to introduce 'Nickleby' into our normal summer schedule.
"We opened our season with 'As You Like It,' went into 'The Playboy of the Western World,' welcomed Gay Marshall's new one-woman musical 'Piaf: Le Vie! L'Amour!', all the while rehearsing 'Nicholas.' This has moved us onto another level of activity, and in December, we'll introduce our first winter production, a new musical from Dylan Thomas, 'A Child's Christmas in Wales.' "
Accepting the Royal Shakespeare Company's sole production proviso -- no cuts -- Dowling started production plans with the time-saving device the RSC had used: two directors, Robert Lanchester of Princeton and Edward Stern of Indianapolis.
The staff's Lewis D. Rampino created some 400 costume designs, and John Ezell followed the general plan of the original set. The Cleveland Symphony recorded Stephen Oliver's original score.
For his casting, Dowling used a number of proven festival players, but he'd also been around enough regional theaters to know where to find other talents. In recent years, I've seen about half of his 46 players somewhere or other.
The title part, longer than any in Shakespeare, is done with stength, skill and manly spirit by David Purdham, whom I first saw at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival before he went on to San Francisco's Act, Houston's Alley and Broadway. Smike is played by William Youmans, who acted at Norfolk's Virginia Theater and is just back from London and Elizabeth Taylor's "The Little Foxes."
Playing a half-dozen roles, among them lusty Mrs. Squeers and comical Mrs. Crummles, is Helena Carroll, introduced to America with her own Irish Players in Father Paul Vincent Carroll's plays. A favorite at both the National and Olney, she's the original star of Tennessee Williams' "Small Craft Warnings" and several evening television series.
Also playing half a dozen parts is a young actor I saw win a place in the American College Theater Festival a few years ago for a "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern" produced at the Naval Academy. Michael Haney got more steamed up over acting than he did over turbines, so he checked out of Annapolis and has been acting ever since.
Other players -- Barry Boys, Richard C. Brown, Madylon Branstetter, Michjohn McCann, Colm Meaney, Aideen O'Kelly among them -- I've seen on stages from Florida to Seattle. They've all been out acting somewhere, and it shows.
It shows in their voices, which project, without mikes, splendidly, either soft or loud and with command of scale, tone and breathing. Their collective experiences also have produced an almost company-wide ability to take a stage, an assurance vital to commanding attention.
True, Dickens does give players gorgeous material, a parade of some 300 characters, each with the dignity of individuality, no matter how brief their appearances. The actors here catch their affectations and greed, their humor and affections, and they add the qualities up to a marvelous mix of human awareness and narrative drive. Don't forget Dickens dedicated this novel to his era's most celebrated actor, W. C. McCready, one of the duo who inspired New York's Astor Place riots.
Small wonder, then, that the standing ovations of the Broadway run continue in Cleveland. It's now proven that "Nick Nick's" theatrical rapport can indeed be transplanted. What about chances for this company to keep together, move elsewhere?
"We've had inquiries," said managing director Mary Bill, "but, you know, it's not really our sole project. We're extending our season into winter, we're adding more playing time next year, we have a new musical for Christmas and we've got to make plans for next summer now. If we let 'Nicholas' take over all our energies, that would diminish our organization. We have to keep on with our future."
Which is probably the kind of realistic thinking that made possible 'Nick Nick's' first adventure into the American hinterlands. There will be others.