How do you make your “A Christmas Carol” so different that it stands out in a season piled high with streaming versions of Dickens’ heartwarming tale?
That seems to be the main aim of Streaming Musicals’ “Estella Scrooge,” with a cast of Broadway stars, a fresh score by Paul Gordon, pandemic-era technical innovation, and some barbed satire that speaks to the present moment. Yet the result, to paraphrase Dickens, is the best of tries, and the worst of tries.
“Estella Scrooge” is subtitled “A Christmas Carol with a Twist,” but the twist is not just that it’s a musical updated to modern times. The show borrows extravagantly from a range of Charles Dickens’ novels – Bleak House, Great Expectations, Little Dorrit, Nicholas Nickleby, David Copperfield, Oliver Twist…it’s hard to think of a Dickens novel that is not referenced one way or another in “Estella Scrooge.”
Some of this is clever: The story begins with the camera zooming up the (animated) skyscraper headquarters of Bleak House Capital, where we hear smarmy voices from the various subsidiaries: “Bleak House Medical. Taking Special Care of America’s Families. Your approximate hold time is 62 hours.”
The allusions become something of a parlor game: One of the main settings, a hotel, features residents with names and character traits familiar to Dickens readers. Lauren Patten, for example, portrays a pickpocket named Dawkins. Alert Dickens fans will recall the character Jack Dawkins, aka the Artful Dodger, a pickpocket in “Oliver Twist.” In case her name wasn’t clue enough, Tom Nelis as the bellhop Dedlock (a character from the novel “Bleak House”) even gives her a Christmas present of a Dodgers baseball cap.
But the creative team wasn’t content merely to name-drop from other works. Instead, the librettists Gordon and John Caird insert a patchwork of Dickens plotlines (especially from “Great Expectations”) that complicate, and I feel undermine, the simpler Christmas tale.
Estella Scrooge (Betsy Wolfe), the 21st century adopted descendant of Ebenezer Scrooge, travels from the headquarters of her sprawling conglomerates to her hometown of Pickwick, Ohio on Christmas Eve to foreclose on a hotel, run by her childhood sweetheart, Pip Nickleby (Clifton Duncan.) She wants to evict all the residents, raze the building and replace it with a mall. But then she encounters the ghosts past, present and future – all of whom aren’t simply ghosts anymore, but double as characters from other Dickens’ stories) Carolee Carmello is Miss Haversham (from Great Expectations), as the ghost of her old boss (rather than, in the original Christmas Carol, her old partner); Sarah Litzsinger is Sissy Jupe (from Hard Times) as a rocking ghost of Christmas past; Danny Burstein is Ebenezer Scrooge ,as the ghost of Christmas present, and Patrick Page is Mr. Merdle (the Bernard Madoff-like swindling banker who commits suicide in Little Dorrit) as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. The story’s twists from there could cause neck sprain.
Similarly, the film works wonders visually under the pandemic-era restrictions that have made so many other productions resort to tedious Zoom boxes. The characters appear to be interacting together in an office or a hotel lobby, when in fact the actors were isolated in far-flung locations, performing separately.
But the creative team didn’t know when to stop, injecting animation and special effects that look relatively cheap to anybody who’s seen a blockbuster in the last, say, 25 years. These effects are not just unnecessary; some of them threaten to lessen our emotional investment. When the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come takes Estella to the graveyard to see Tiny Tammy (changed from Tiny Tim), she materializes Genie-like from her grave, and bursts into flames and fireworks, while ghouls swirl around her. It’s like a scene from a bus and truck theater company’s streaming production of Beetlejuice.
If that scene weren’t bad enough, Tammy (Willow McCarthy) sings a song to Estella called “Life,” whose lyrics begin:
I could have had a life
I could have had a boyfriend
But now I’m dead
Let me remind you here that I also said “Estella Scrooge” is the best of tries.
Many of the songs in the show are lyrical or witty, lovely or lively – and delivered by a cast of pros who know what they’re doing. Lauren Patten proves her show-stopping delivery in Jagged Little Pill was not just a fluke, in such numbers here as “Barbie Doll” (“High heels, red rouge, Miss Scrooge,” she spits out.) Carolee Carmello is the essence of Haversham in “Isn’t she beautiful,” when she advises the young Pip then immediately afterwards the young Estella:
Love her obsessively
Crush him aggressively
Clifton Duncan (and the actor who portrays Pip as a child,
Joziyah Patrick Jean-Felix) are both splendid, the closest to heartwarming in all of “Estrella Scrooge.” Pip runs his hotel like a halfway house, and never turns anyone away, even if they can’t pay. Perhaps Pip is too saintly to exist in the real world, but if I’m going to spend the holidays with a hotelier, he’s the one I much prefer.
“Estella Scrooge” is 29.99 to rent, 49.99 to buy
Running time: about 140 minutes
Book by John Caird and Paul Gordon
Music and Lyrics by Paul Gordon
Directed by John Caird
Cast: Betsy Wolfe, Clifton Duncan, Lauren Patten, Also Starring Patrick Page, Carolee Carmello, And Danny Burstein, Megan McGinnis, Em Grosland, Tom Nelis, Phoenix Best, Meg Gibson, William Youmans, Kevyn Morrow, David Bryant, Gabrielle Reid, Samuel Lee Roberts, Michael Francis McGride, Kristen Faith Oei, Michele Lee, Featuring Sarah Litzsinger, Joziyah Patrick Jean-Felix, Brooklyn Shuck, Adam Halpin, Willow McCarthy