Leigh Barrett Stars in “Nicholas Nickleby”

23Oct10

At Lyric Stage in Boston

When The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby debuted in London and then on Broadway, it took on the character of a major theatrical event. The same is expected when David Edgar’s stage adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic makes its New England premier at Boston’s Lyric Stage October 21 – December 19, 2010.

The Lyric Stage production features 25 of the Boston area’s best actors, including Wakefield, Massachusetts native and 1983 Wakefield High School graduate Leigh Barrett.

The epic production will be presented in two parts, with parts I and II in rotating repertory. Barrett doesn’t see the two-part presentation as a big problem for today’s audiences.

“We’re such a TV generation,” Barrett says. “We’re used to cliff-hangers. It’s our job (as actors) to keep it exciting.” Barrett says that her husband saw the New York production in the 1980s and still remembers what an event it was. “We’re hoping for the same excitement,” Barrett says.

The play is obviously based on Dickens 1838 novel of the same name. Left penniless by the death of his father, young Nicholas Nickleby assumes responsibility for his mother and sister and seeks help from his Scrooge-like Uncle Ralph in London. Instantly disliking Nicholas, Ralph sends him to teach in a school run by the sadistic Wackford Squeers. Nicholas decides to escape, taking with him the orphan Smike, one of Squeers’ most abused young charges, and the two embark on a series of adventurous encounters with an array of humanity’s worst and best — greedy fools, corrupt lechers, cheery innocents, and selfless benefactors.

Most of the actors in the Lyric production play multiple roles and Barrett is no exception. Her primary character is the kindly Miss La Creevy, a London portrait artist who initially provides the Nickleby’s with a room in her home.

Barrett points out that Dickens’ characters tend to be archetypes: the bad tend to be irredeemably bad, while the good tend to be very good indeed. Her character, Miss La Creevy, falls into the latter category.

“Miss La Creevy is kind and not out for anything,” Barrett says. She’s doing well, comes from money, owns her own home and lets out rooms.” While Miss La Creevy is a flighty, artistic type that people tend not to take very seriously, Barrett says that her character “is a lot smarter than people give her credit for. I love her,” Barrett adds. “She’s a little cupcake of a character.”

Billed as “a play with music,” The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby is set in a time when songs were thrown into plays, lectures and all sorts of events to make them more appealing to a wider audience, Barrett explains. The stage adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby uses ambient music and an English music hall feel to set the mood.

While she doesn’t sing in the role of her primary character, Miss La Creevy, Barrett does get to sing as part of the company and performs solo numbers as other characters that she plays, which include an opera singer.

“People who like to hear me sing won’t be disappointed,” Barrett says with a laugh.

Barrett is a veteran of Boston’s professional theater scene and has appeared on regional stages like Stoneham Theatre and the Gloucester Stage Company. She won the 2004 Elliot Norton Award for Outstanding Actress for her performances in Sweeney Todd, Jacques Brel, Threepenny Opera and Follies. She won the 2003 INRE Award for Best Supporting Actress and won another Elliot Norton Award in 2007 for Souvenir and Ragtime.

Barrett is no stranger to the Lyric Stage, having appeared in numerous Lyric productions including Follies, Souvenir, A Little Night Music, Sunday in the Park with George and Nuncrackers. So when the Lyric’s producing Artistic Director Spiro Veloudos asked her to audition for the cast of Nicholas Nickleby, she did, and is happy to be back at the Lyric and working with Veloudos.

“We like to work together and have a good working relationship,” Barrett says. She adds that over the years she and Veloudos have developed the kind of professional shorthand that often forms between a director and an actor. “It makes the process easier for both,” Barrett says.

Barrett notes that Nicholas Nickleby is a family friendly show that kids will long remember going to see with their parents. She says that the message that sticks with you long after you leave the theater is a theme that Dickens returned to again and again. “We all as human beings are responsible for each other and we need to help each other,” Barrett says, even though we tend “to take people and things for granted.”

Barrett says that audiences shouldn’t be scared off by the length of the show.

“It will fly by,” she promises.

The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby runs through December 19, 2010.Lyric Stage Company of Boston is located at 140 Clarendon St., Boston. Parts I and II of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby will be performed in rotating repertory, with five “marathon days,” where Part I and Part II will be performed with a two-hour dinner break. For show times and tickets, visit the Lyric Stage web site.

[This story originally appeared in the October 20, 2010 Wakefield Daily Item.]

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