By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
It might be easy to dismiss Estella Scrooge: A Christmas Carol with a Twist as another in a continuing procession of holiday fare we’ve gotten used to seeing each December. With dozens of new movies and specials streaming or broadcasting on various platforms, discerning viewers might be lulled into believing they could easily skip this one, that it’s just another repackaging of the Charles Dickens classic into a cross-gender bender.
And they would be oh so very wrong.
Estella Scrooge is so much more than that. It is a charming, thoughtful vehicle for a number of well-established stars of musical theatre that addresses an agenda of timely issues such as homelessness, poverty, mental illness, LGBTQ acceptance, racial inclusivity and the need for family during dire times.
Written by John Caird (multiple Tony and Olivier Award-winning director) and Paul Gordon with book and lyrics by Gordon and directed by Caird, Estella Scrooge is a true love letter to Charles Dickens, the devotees of his works and the many characters he created. Book lovers of his works will smile wistfully at how well Caird and Gordon did in fleshing out characters for our new millennium who are able to resonate with the harsh times nearly two centuries beforehand.
For those that recognize phrases like “It is a far, far better thing that I do” or remember the unusual names of Dickensian characters like Smike, Uriah Heap or Nicholas Nickleby, there is much to admire in how this new spin on “A Christmas Carol” (and other classic tales) has been updated and cobbled together. Sam Caird is also listed as a collaborator on the story.
Shot during the current COVID-19 pandemic, the entire production was shot scene by scene and actor by actor against blue screens so that contact between actors and crew was kept to an absolute minimum. While traditional set designs are absent, the thrilling special effects that were added more than made up for any potential loss of authenticity. The ghostly effects required for the spooky visitations are superbly rendered and all done safely while observing COVID-19 protocols.
In the titular role of Estella Scrooge is the indomitable Betsy Wolfe (Waitress), who is as talented and lovely as she is tall. And in those high heels, as the chairwoman of Bleak House (a burgeoning conglomerate representing the worst trappings of capitalism), she has a heart that has been hardened by commerce and cash, expressed in the song “Never Look Down.”
Wolfe handles the role magnificently, singing Gordon’s songs that were inspired inturn by scores of Dickens’ characters and storylines. When word comes that the Harthouse Hotel’s sub-prime lease with Bleak House has become due, Estella is quick to make arrangements to go back to Pickwick and foreclose on the property herself, since it is, after all, Christmas Eve.
It is there that we first see her come into contact with Philip “Pip” Nickleby, played by Clifton Duncan (The Play That Goes Wrong), who has been running the hotel as a haven for misfits, social castoffs and the poverty-stricken.
Duncan, who possesses a lovely tenor is opposed to the foreclosure, not just for his own sake, but for the souls he has kept off the streets and to whom he has given a measure of dignity. He hopes against immeasurable odds that Bleak House – and Estella – will have a change of heart.
He sings of the family he has invented for the benefit of the tenants, each one pitching in and contributing in whatever manner they can in “Not on My Watch.” Another solo number Duncan advances is the wistful “Great Expectations” in which he speaks of the unrequited love between him and Estella.
Among the slightly off-center residents of the hotel are Lauren Patten (Jagged Little Pill) as Dawkins (the Artful Dodger), Em Grosland (“Ricki and the Flash”), Phoenix Best (Dear Evan Hansen) in the dual roles of Charity and Mercy Pecksniff and Tom Nevis (Girl from the North Country) as the hotel’s longtime doorman.
As the adopted daughter of her Aunt Marla Havisham Scrooge (Carolee Carmello), Estella has been steeled for business and instructed in how to manipulate men. The intersection of the storylines of “A Christmas Carol” and “Great Expectations” is an inspired choice for Gordon and Caird, who were also assisted by Sam Caird in creating the story.
Carmello, who takes on the combined roles of Miss Haversham from “Great Expectations” and Jacob Marley from “A Christmas Carol,” is the first of the spirits to visit Estella. Following the death of her aunt, Estella has taken over the head of Bleak House and resolves to be as hard-boiled and unkind as her unsympathetic aunt had schooled her.
Carmello’s voice graces but one song, “Wall Street Baby Superstar” with support by Kristen Faith Oei and Michele Lee, which is a shame because she does possess a remarkable instrument. Before she exits, she promises that three spirits will visit her niece at 1:00, 2:00 and 3:00 a.m.
Following a short conversation with the adult Pip, Estella returns to her room for the first of her visits from Sissy Jupe, the character found within the pages of “Hard Times,” but who is presented as a British rocker complete with a stage with a retractable trap door.
As the Ghost of Christmas Past, Sissy Jupe reminds Estella of her duplicitous manner in dealing with the younger Pip. Shown in flashback, Pip as a teenager is played bfy Joziah Jean-Felix. Brooklyn Shuck handles the role of the young “Essy.” The two have a duet in the song “Gardens and Stars” in which they profess their love for one another.
After the first ghost has left, Estella returns to the hotel lobby to become more acquainted with Pip. The two begin to warm in their approach to one another, but then she must exit for the entrance of the second ghost.
The Ghost of Christmas Present is deliciously played by Danny Burstein (Moulin Rouge!), who shows Estella how the medical insurance (or lack thereof) has had a terrible cost for Tiny Tammy, the daughter of her confidential assistant at work, Betty Cratchit (Megan McGinnis). She and Adam Halpin, as her husband Bob Cratchit, sing the aptly titled duet “Best of Times, Worst of Times.” The song is reprised later by Wolfe and Duncan
Burstein’s delightful rendition of “It’s a Beautiful Night” is one of the highlights of the production. It’s easy to see why he has been nominated for a Tony Award on six previous occasions, but not why he hasn’t won yet.
After yet another encounter with Pip, Estella is visited by the most fearful of the three spectres, the Ghost of Christmas Future played ever so menacing and ever so playfully by Patrick Page (Hadestown).
Page’s presence is strong and powerful and he works well with Wolfe in getting her to see the error of her ways.
The final portion of the work has a surprise ending that will delight the greatest of Dickens fans and quite worthy of this salute to the great British writer.
Produced by Michael Jackowitz of Witzend Productions, David Bryant and Michael Alden, Estella Scrooge: A Christmas Carol with a Twist is presented in partnership with Streaming Musicals. Streaming Musicals has, in turn, partnered with 50 theaters across the country to allow them to promote the show and to receive 30% of the profits. Local producers Jefferson Performing Arts Society are among the 50 theaters chosen and the streams to watch at up to 72 hours in duration are available now through January 31. Click here for more information.