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Review: ‘Estella Scrooge’ packages Dickens as a musical for pandemic times

Patrick Page and the cast of "Estella Scrooge"
Patrick Page and the cast of “Estella Scrooge” deliver a pandemic-filmed twist on Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”
(Tyler Milliron)

Reworking one of the most famous Christmas stories for these pandemic times, the streaming musical “Estella Scrooge: A Christmas Carol With a Twist” breathes new life into Charles Dickens’ classic tale.

To create this “digital theater piece,” actors were filmed individually to allow for COVID-19 social distancing. The footage was then blended with animation, backgrounds and other imagery for a final project that blurs the line between theater and film, presenting something akin to a recorded Broadway musical overlaid with modest visual effects.

The story follows cold-hearted, money-driven Estella Scrooge (Betsy Wolfe), a CEO at Bleak House Capital, a company that declares in its opening number, “We care almost as much about you as we do your money.” Meanwhile, in Estella’s hometown of Pickwick, Ohio, Philip Nickelby (Clifton Duncan) runs the hotel Harthouse, which he has turned into a refuge for those in need. When Philip defaults on his mortgage, Estella travels to Pickwick to personally foreclose on the property.

Although stitching together a production like this is quite the feat, the look of “Estella Scrooge” is initially distracting. It’s almost as though we’re watching CGI at times. The actors have black outlines around their bodies, serving as a reminder that the frame is the sum of its parts. However, “A Christmas Carol” is a story about ghosts, after all, so the surrealist feel doesn’t taint the viewing experience, especially when the story gets into its more fantastical elements. Here, the limitations of pandemic filming serve to heighten the ghosts’ ghoulish looks.

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Actors Clifton Duncan and Betsy Wolfe in front of a fireplace in the filmed musical "Estella Scrooge."
Clifton Duncan is Philip Nickleby and Betsy Wolfe is Estella Scrooge in the filmed musical “Estella Scrooge.”
( Tyler Milliron)

The talented cast, which includes seven-time Tony nominee Danny Burstein (“Moulin Rouge! The Musical”), more than thrives under the strange filming conditions. The two leads are especially striking: Wolfe makes Estella’s cold-to-warm arc believable, while Duncan is charming and captivating as the generous but firm hotelier who must save Harthouse. They convey their complicated history well and have palpable chemistry despite having to film their scenes in isolation.

Director John Caird co-wrote the book with lyricist-composer Paul Gordon, and together they have successfully modernized a classic story for this production, which is being promoted by regional theaters across the country (locally through the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts). Although the pacing can feel slow at times — some songs linger without advancing plot or character — the relationships are fleshed out and feel authentic. The plot stays true to Dickens and pays homage to its predecessor — one of the three spirits to visit Estella is Ebenezer himself — while offering some refreshing updates.

“West Side Story,” “Hamilton,” Laura Linney, Andrew Scott and “What the Constitution Means to Me,” the last of which gave us two reasons to applaud.

The world of “Estella” is more inclusive. (The character of Smike, played by Em Grosland, announces his pronouns upon meeting Estella.) The message of caring about and for other people — especially those from more vulnerable communities — is vital today in a world that clearly is still learning to become more accepting of difference.

With lots of references to Dickens’ other works, “Estella Scrooge” may delight fans of “A Christmas Carol” and also be novel enough for those who just want a heartwarming holiday tale.

'Estella Scrooge'

When: Streaming through Jan. 3

Tickets: $29.99 to rent, $44.99 to buy

Info: streamingmusicals.com

Running time: About 2 hours, 20 minutes


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