Designing Nicholas Nickleby!

Here we are – three weeks from the first rehearsal. And while this is the part of the process that many people generally think of as the beginning, it is not. For example, most people probably don’t realize how far in advance the design team begins working on a show. Our team has been furiously working for months now to create the Victorian world of …Nicholas Nickleby

The “Crummles Company” section of the play-where Nicholas and Smike join a troupe of actors and find success and much happiness-is truly a love letter from Dickens to the theatre. And in many ways, this section of the play has helped to focus the vision of our production: a company of actors here at The Lyric Stage Company presenting the play of Nicholas Nickleby to you-and perhaps even with you. 

Beginning there, our designers tackled the challenge of how to bring 1830s London to The Lyric. Janie Howland, whose work has been seen in such favorites as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Urinetown, has almost finished the scenic design already. Janie has been working with using different textures (wood, brick, cobblestones) and creating various levels and spaces that can take our audience to London of the mid-1800s and beyond. From the cold and northern county of Yorkshire to the slums of London’s East End, from the tired and work stage in Portsmouth to the very fashionable Opera, we needed a world that would allow us to quickly transform our locations while still giving us the feel of each individual world. At the same time, we hope to bring the audience into each location immediately and completely. This design does not end where the line of the stage does . . .

sketch of Nicholas Nickleby Set

Our fabulous costume designer Rafael Jaen has been researching and sketching costume pieces all summer. When going over some preliminary ideas in a meeting with Spiro and me, Rafael told us he was “illustrating” this play more so than designing it. This idea of illustrating this play-filling in key moments completely while leaving certain details and other moments to your imagination-resonated very strongly with me. Now of course, this does not mean that you will see people half-dressed on-stage. However, when one is playing a starving young resident at Dotheboys Hall, perhaps just a few key pieces, such as a hat and gloves or a scarf, will allow the actor to transform into this young boy. Rafael also spoke of focusing on the silhouettes from the period, once again giving a strong, clear outline while allowing each audience member the freedom to fill in some of the smaller details with their own interpretations and imaginations.

sketch of Nicholas Nickleby costumes

The 150 Piece Puzzle

Many directing books suggest that the single most important thing a director does is cast their show. If you cast it well, much of the work is done for you. Make a mistake, and – well, let’s just say that everything becomes much more difficult.

So how do you go about casting a play with over 150 named characters? For us, that journey began in an unlikely place: an Excel spreadsheet. Or rather, about 15 pages of Excel spreadsheets which, when pieced together, gave a breakdown of who is in what scene for both parts 1 and 2. 

The joy and the challenge of casting this piece was the doubling of the roles, actors playing more than one role. Each production has done this differently. The original Royal Shakespeare Company version had 40 actors, many of whom were deeply involved with the creation of the piece. They had worked for months examining moments, themes, characters, style, and so on before the plays were cast. Some actors were elated, some left the project right then. 

With the new abridged version, each production has done the doublings slightly differently. The script itself suggests a breakdown, while noting that their suggestions don’t actually work. What worked in Chichester was not necessarily best for California Shakespeare Festival, and then in North Carolina, Playmakers Repertory came along and shook things up in their own way. Now it was our turn.

Armed with several more spreadsheets of different casting possibilities, Spiro and I entered into auditions and callbacks cautiously. Would we keep some of the traditional doublings or go completely off the grid and create completely new “tracks” for our company? 

In the end, we’ve done both. Some traditional pairings such as Mrs. Squeers/Mrs. Crummles, Squeers/Sir Mulberry, were kept and others were thrown out with the bathwater. Some tracks were built around the actor, some actors cast for a specific track. For many of the actors, tracks were partly offered – “We know you’ll be playing A, B, and C, but we’re not sure what else yet.” It is moments like this when I am truly grateful for the trust that actors place in directors. 

Putting this 150-piece jigsaw puzzle together was both maddening and inspiring. Some pieces were wedged into several spots before they fit; others just seemed to connect up with other pieces on their own. 

At the end of the day (well, more like weeks) we suffered from an embarrassment of riches. So many talented, eager actors shared their time and talents with us. It was truly heart-wrenching to have to make the difficult decisions. Casting always is difficult, but this one honestly hurt more than usual. This process was the first time the production was opened and discussed with a larger group of people, and I think we quickly began to see how much the story of Nicholas Nickleby means to so many people. While the decisions were difficult, and none made lightly, the company that has emerged is truly phenomenal, and I cannot wait for you to meet them – and all of their puzzle pieces.

The Final Cast List
Sasha Castroverde……………….Fanny Squeers, Madeline Bray, and Ensemble
Erica Spyres……………………….Tilda Price, Mis Snevellicci, and Ensemble
Elizabeth Rimar……………………Kate Nickelby
Sally Nutt……………………………Miss Knagg, Phib, Mrs. Whititterly, and Ensemble
Leigh Barrett*……………………..Miss La Creevy, Peg Sliderskew, Mrs. Grudden, and Ensemble
Hannah Husband………………….Mme. Mantallini and Ensemble
Kerry Dowling*……………………Mrs. Squeers, Mrs. Crummles, and Ensemble
Alicia Sacco………………………..The Infant Phenomenon and Ensemble
Janelle Day Mills…………………..Hannah and Ensemble
Eric Hamel…………………………..Mr. Lenville and Ensemble
Michael Steven Costello…………Mr. Snawley, Brooker, and Ensemble
Daniel Berger Jones……………….John Browdie, Lord Verisopht, and Ensemble
Nigel Gore*………………………….Mr. Squeers, Sir Mulberry Hawk, and Fluggers
Larry Coen*…………………………Mr. Crummles, Young Wackford, and Charles Cheeryble
Joseph Marrella……………………..William, Ned Cheeryble, and Ensemble
Jason Powers*……………………….Smike
Chris Graham…………………………Mr. Pyke, Mr. Tix, and Ensemble
Grant MacDermott………………….Frank Cheeryble and Ensemble
Peter Carey*………………………….Newman Noggs
Jack Cutmore-Scott…………………Nicholas Nickleby
Will Lyman*……………………………Ralph Nickleby
Maureen Keiller*……………………..Mrs. Nickleby, Mrs. Curdle and ensemble
John Davin*…………………………….Arthur Gride, Sir Matthew and Ensemble
Jeff Mahoney…………………………..Belling, Mr. Scaley, Mr. Curdle, and Ensemble
Neil A. Casey*………………………..Mr. Mantalini, Mr. Folair, Walter Bray and Ensemble

We know you have questions. Trust us, we understand the confusion.

The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby is a huge undertaking, from an administrative standpoint as well as a creative one. Here in the box office, we’ve striven to ensure that all of our subscribers will see both parts in the correct order, and will have seen both parts within about a week of each other, and we’ve done upwards of 200 exchanges already – and still counting. It’s only natural that people will have questions about the project. The following details some of our favorite questions to answer here in the box office, in the hopes that our answers will be illuminating…

“What’s a repertory?”

This is actually not a silly question: this type of schedule simply isn’t done very often, and sometimes causes some confusion. Basically, we’re going to have two full productions playing at the same time. Great care was taken all the way back in February to create the repertory schedule that will allow the two parts to play concurrently. Instead of spending a month on Part I, followed by a month of Part II, our schedule is designed so that the whole story can be experienced in the matter of a couple of days, or with only a week separating the two parts.

“Is this the same version that my friend/cousin/neighbor saw on Broadway many years ago? I thought it was nine hours long!”

The Lyric Stage Company will present the newly revised edition of …Nicholas Nickleby. Each part will run near three hours, with a total combined running time of about six and a half hours. This is only the third time this adaptation has been produced in the United States, and is the New England Premiere production!

“Why do I have to come back for Part II? Can’t I see it all combined in one evening?”

Other than the fact that we’d all be here well past midnight, running both parts in one evening would be exhausting to our actors, audience, and staff. Around hour four, everyone would be ready for a bathroom break! On top of that, the play is designed to be two full – but separate – productions. You can, however, see both parts of …Nicholas Nickleby in one full day, as part of what we’re calling a “marathon day” – there are five of them over the course of the nine week run of the shows, and we’d be happy to have you here for one of them! I know it’s going to be a very rewarding experience for everyone involved to see the entire epic story unfold in one day. Part I will play in the afternoon, at 2pm or 3pm, and then Part II will follow in the evening at 7:30pm or 8pm, after a dinner break, where you can enjoy a sumptuous meal at one of our partner restaurants. Special discounts at area dining spots will be available on our website, so check there before coming to the theatre.

Invariably, the question that follows is, “What if I can only see one part?”

Well, while we at the Lyric certainly encourage seeing both parts to get the complete experience of the story and of the theatrical production, both parts can be enjoyed on their own. See Part I and when you’re introduced to Nicholas and the cast of hundreds, and then pick up the novel and continue where you’ve left off. Or, see Part II and catch up on the story you’ve missed through materials provided in your program. It will be easy enough to catch up. 

If you’re still not convinced, take our word for it and see Part I, and when you’re blown away by the scope of the tale, come on over to the box office and get a ticket to Part II before they all sell out! (You should really see both parts.)

“What’s the draw? Why should I spend two full evenings (or one entire day) at the theatre?”

Have you read Charles Dickens lately? The man knew how to write. The draw of the productions, at their heart, is the thick and engrossing story, the rich, vivacious and nuanced characters, played by a stunning cast of Lyric favorites as well as some talented and dynamic newcomers to our theatre. This newly revised adaptation takes the sprawling landscape of Dickensian fiction and lays it our right before the audience’s eyes… it’s an experience you won’t soon forget. Two nights out for the once-in-a-lifetime theatrical spectacular.

If you have more questions about tickets, special events and offer, visit our website at or call our box office to speak with one of our friendly associates at 617.585.5678.

Surviving Dickens’ London

Click on the link below and transport yourself to Dicken’s London, to meet many of the author’s colorful characters. Pick pockets for Fagin from Oliver Twist or travel the streets with the ghost of Jacob Marley from A Christmas Carol and learn fun facts along the way about the author’s life. If you can earn enough money and stay healthy long enough to take a carriage to Rochester, you can meet the celebrated author himself!

Screenshot of Surviving Dickens' London Animation

Click here to play Survive Dickens’ London on the BBC website.

Why? The Answer is In The Play

By Associate Director, Courtney O’Connor

Whenever I tell people about our epic project, they generally stare at me for a few seconds after they learn that the total running time for The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby will be about 6 ½ hours, in two parts of just over 3 hours each. This is generally followed by 2 questions: “Are you crazy?” and “Why?” 

The answer to the first question, “Are you crazy?” is easy – yes, although that has very little to do with this production, frankly. The second question, “Why?” is much more complex. 

This past March, Producing Artistic Director Spiro Veloudos and I sat down for coffee, and he laid out his vision for directing this piece. It was clear that this has long been a dream of his. He initially had conversations about producing …Nicholas Nicklebywhen he was the Artistic Director at The Publick Theatre, before the script had been trimmed to its current, abridged length from the original 9 hours. For some twenty years, this story and this play have been stewing and ruminating in Spiro’s mind and creative energy. Even as a big fan of the process of working on a piece, I must say – that’s a long time.

As Spiro and I delved into and spoke about the play, another aspect became clear. This show is big. Let’s just look at the numbers for a moment, shall we? 

2 parts
3.25 hours each 
6.5 hours total
5 weeks rehearsal
9 weeks performance
25 actors
150+ roles
1000+ costume pieces

And we’ve only just begun. So why on earth would someone undertake this when we are in some of the worst economic times in recent memory? 

The answer, dear readers, is in the play. As they do in much of Dickens’ work, money and class run at the very core of …Nicholas Nickleby. It is easy to see Ralph Nickleby as an extension of Ebenezer Scrooge, but the exploration of the effect of money goes much deeper than that. Who has it, who doesn’t, who’s trying to get it, and how. What are the consequences of each of those situations? The juxtaposition between the wealthy and the poor seem to be more central and more present than in some of Dickens’ other writings. 

In his book, The Nicholas Nickleby Story, Leon Rubin (Associate Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company production) recounts the experience the company had with the creation of this piece. He tells how to one point in the process, adaptor David Edgar was “challenged by Trevor (Nunn) to say what he thought Nicholas Nickleby was really about. He replied, ‘Money’.” 

And indeed, we only have to look to the opening scene of the play to realize just how clearly Edgar allowed this thread to pull through the script. A mere 45 seconds into the play, the following lines appear: 

But a mania prevailed, 
A bubble burst, 
Four hundred stockbrokers took villa residences at Florence.
Four hundred nobodies were ruined, 

Sound familiar? 

So the question of “Why” is answered as it is for all plays and musicals at The Lyric: To entertain, to challenge, and to provoke our audiences. As with any play, the strength of the story is in how we relate to it. Though the events take place in 1830’s England, parallels to our contemporary world are clear. Thoughts and concerns of money, family, and morals are everywhere – just as they were 180 years ago.

Scroll to Top
We have postponed our production of Fabulation or, the Re-Education of Undine.Read about how we are responding to the coronavirus.