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STAGE WATCH

The Marathon 'Nicholas Nickleby' Is Bound for the Ahmanson; The Schedule Is Shuffled for the Taper's Repertory Festival

March 13, 1986|SYLVIE DRAKE | Times Theater Writer

To quote the song: "Something's comin', something big." And it's coming to the Ahmanson.

The Royal Shakespeare Company's "Nicholas Nickleby," that marathon Dickens surprise of Broadway's 1981 season, rumbles in there for 32 performances, June 15 to Aug. 2, with lower-priced previews beginning June 11.

The Los Angeles engagement launches a limited United States tour for the "Nickleby" company encompassing Boston, Phildelphia, Washington and, again, New York.

Said Center Theatre Group board president David J. Haft: "We had a bit of a time putting it together. It's an enormous undertaking and we needed help. Aaron Spelling and Robert Ahmanson came in with the needed additional support."

As it is, it took Ahmanson, Spelling, Center Theatre Group, Three Knights Ltd. and the Shuberts to pull this one off. Negotiations with the Shuberts (who'd produced the 1981 Broadway edition of "Nickleby") had been going on for about five weeks.

"The logistics of this are enormous," Haft said, putting it mildly.

"Nickleby," which is done in two parts, runs 8 1/2 hours, has more than 130 characters played by 36 actors, complex sets (designed by Dermot Hayes and "Cats" genius John Napier), 700 lighting cues, 500 music cues, 300 costumes (Napier and Andreanne Neofitou) and a nucleus of 13 musicians.

Part I is four hours, with one 15-minute intermission; Part II is 4 1/2 hours, with two 12-minute intermissions. These can be seen on separate nights or in one day, with an hour off for dinner between shows. (Arrangements are already being negotiated with the Music Center restaurants and neighboring establishments anxious to shuttle voucher-bearing patrons to and from their prix-fixe meals.)

As in New York, the top ticket will be $100--the highest price ever paid for a theatrical production and, in any other circumstances, a real gamble. Not in this case, however. Dollar for dollar, "Nickleby" has proved a strong entertainment value, rated G and brimming with Dickensian spirit, heart, stoicism and caricature.

The show sold out its 14-week Broadway engagement in less time than you could speak its title and could do almost as well here, where scaled-down tickets will be available in the upper balconies (not so in New York) and where, for the last two years, theatergoers have been shelling out $50 to see "Tamara" at Il Vittoriale. (That show celebrates its 750th performance Saturday.)

"Nickleby" also marks an auspicious start for the Center Theatre Group in its first year of year-round operation at the Ahmanson. And it could be the start of something even bigger. The theater's exchange arrangement with British producer Duncan Weldon indicates a future rife with imports.

Artistic director Robert Fryer confirmed that he has nailed down "Wild Honey" as "definitely our first show of next season." This Michael Frayn translation of Chekhov's "Ivanov" (Frayn is the author of "Noises Off" and "Benefactors" currently on Broadway) will be directed by Christopher Morahan ("The Jewel in the Crown") and will feature Ian McKellen in the title role.

Also likely for the Ahmanson's 1986-87 season are Shaw's "The Apple Cart" with Peter O'Toole ("he wants to do it") and "Sweet Bird of Youth" with Lauren Bacall as flamboyant Alexandra Del Lago. This show, which had been staged by Harold Pinter in London, would be entirely remounted locally.

"Pinter can't do it," Fryer said and, except for Bacall, "we'll cast and stage it here." The fourth play of the season, yet to be picked, would then be the Ahmanson's export to London.

As for "Pravda," the David Hare play Fryer wants that was a massive London hit for protagonist Anthony Hopkins, Fryer said, "We may do it in the fall of '87. Tony's not available until then."

THE TAPER SHUFFLE: For the second time this year the Mark Taper Forum has altered its schedule. The sixth annual Taper Repertory Festival, which was to run April 2 through June 15 at the James A. Doolittle Theatre in Hollywood, will now run June 5 through July 13. The reason? As Taper artistic director Gordon Davidson put it: "I knew I shouldn't try to buck (TV) pilot season."

This implies that TV actors are hotly in the running here and may relate to the fact that Michael Gross (of TV's "Family Ties") has been cast as Henry, the male lead in "The Real Thing," and as Tesman in the rep's companion production, Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler."

Linda Purl, last seen on stage in the L.A. Public Theatre's "Beyond Therapy" (and as a fine Nora in "A Doll House" in 1982), will take on the plum role of Annie in "Real Thing" and Thea in "Gabler."

Finally, Kate Mulgrew will play Hedda in "Hedda Gabler" and Charlotte in "The Real Thing."

Davidson is staging "The Real Thing," while staff director Robert Egan directs "Hedda Gabler," marking the second time in two years that Mulgrew plays the lead in a play staged by husband Egan (she was Isabella in last year's "Measure for Measure").

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