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Strong cast rings in 'The Chimes' for Road Less Traveled

At Road Less Traveled Productions these pre-holiday nights, there is a stage version of a Charles Dickens mid-19th century novella, "The Chimes: A Goblin Story of Some Bells That Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In," or as RLTP adapter and director John Hurley has thankfully and wisely retitled it, "The Chimes: A Goblin Story." Over the years, a few critics have said that the story is "deservedly little-known."

Well, that may be harsh. "Chimes" was written in 1844, a year after "A Christmas Carol." It is one of five Christmas stories by Dickens, who barnstormed Europe hyping its first printing, just as he had done for "Carol," both stories filling his coffers and helping to get the author out of debt. Actually, "Chimes" is not a Christmas tale but rather a New Year wish, a resolution, a start-over, an ode to second chances.

So, it's goodbye to Ebenezer Scrooge, Tiny Tim, Bob Cratchit and the rest and hello to down-on-his-luck Toby Veck, his daughter Meg, the grocer Mrs. Chickenstalker and a gaggle of ridiculously pompous politicos, namely Alderman Cute, mean-spirited Mr. Filer and the paternal member of Parliament, Sir Joseph Bowley, the trio of nincompoops certainly based on economists and social leaders of the times who regularly were lampooned by Dickens in newspaper columns and cartoons. Thinly disguised fools.

Toby works the London streets, delivering mail and running errands for a pittance, scraping by, living with his daughter Meg and spending his spare minutes reading the journalistic tirades about the plight of the poor, their crimes and general shiftlessness. "We must have been born bad," thinks Toby. "We might as well be dead."

Such thoughts get Toby in trouble with the spirits of the cathedral chimes near his lodgings. Toby often finds solace with the chimes but who knew that there were goblins - menacing, intimidating creatures - living in them, capable of whisking poor Toby off (a la Scrooge from "Carol") and showing him scenes of joy, love and compassion that he has or will have as well as glimpses of terrible events that will happen if he does nothing about his attitude of hopelessness.  "Chimes" goes dark - degradation of several sorts, prostitution, alcoholism, a near infanticide - Toby waking from this frightening dream just in time for New Year's Eve and its hopes and toasts. Close call for Toby.

Hurley, the new RLTP assistant artistic director, has a wonderful cast at work here. It features three outstanding young pros, Steve Brachmann, Andrea Andolina and Nick Lama, plus polished veterans Lisa Vitrano and Gerry Maher as easily confused, good guy, lover of family Toby. "Here we are and here we go!" Toby shouts in leading the rest of the cast about as all but Maher play 19 roles, gender-bending, quick-changing, coming, going.

There must have been temptations to exaggerate this parade of Dickensian characters. Director Hurley has resisted. The pace is rapid, the passage of time reasonably clear, some Pickwickian minutes nourished, serious topics given their due. A fine debut by Hurley - the writing certainly, what remains, what could go, and his stellar direction.

"The Chimes: A Goblin Story" runs about 90 minutes without intermission and is aided greatly by a utilitarian, Londonesque set by Lou Iannone and a team of designers.

REVIEW

3 stars (out of 4)

"The Chimes: A Goblin Story"

Where: Road Less Traveled Productions, 500 Pearl St.

When: through Dec. 18

Tickets: $35

Info: 629-3069, roadlesstraveledproductions.org

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