By Philip Pearce
THANKS TO a technically resourceful New York outfit called Streaming Musicals, Jewel Theatre Company of Santa Cruz is offering patrons an online look at a new musical called Estella Scrooge. It’s a fast-paced update of A Christmas Carol but with a big load of other Dickens material poured into the mix.
The script by John Caird and the music by Paul Gordon are served up with some dazzling technology that effectively combines the Broadway talents of a big cast, who observe pandemic protocols by working at different times and distances sometimes far away from each other.
The modern Scrooge is an icy blonde named Estella. She’s the cutthroat CEO of a multi-billion dollar Wall Street firm called Bleak House. Because office staff understandably want to be home for the holiday, Estella herself spends Christmas Eve flying west to personally foreclose on Harthouse, an upbeat but struggling homeless shelter in Pickwick, Ohio. Turns out it’s run by the likeable, warm- hearted, socially committed Pip Nickleby, a guy Estella knew and fell for in her teen years.
The highly populated plot touches a lot of bases, but centers, as with the original story, on Estella’s transformation from cold-hearted meanie to a good-hearted philanthropist. But true to its shift to the two lead characters in Great Expectations, her transformation has as much to do with rekindling a romantic relationship with Pip and tracking down the parents who abandoned her in childhood as it does with rejecting greed and male vanity.
When a blizzard forces her to spend the night in the spooky bridal suite of Harthouse, Estella is visited, like her ancestor Ebenezer, by three ghosts offering lessons in empathy. They are parts of a rehab plan organized by her long lost adopted mom Molly Marley, who spends her afterlife haunting the bridal suite atoning for having turned the teenaged Estella into a man-hating society siren.
But that’s just the ghostly bare bones of the story. Like the BBC’s recent series Dickensian, Estella Scrooge is a happy hunting ground of familiar themes and characters for your nearest Dickens addict. Caird is chock-full of clever ideas for pointing out modern day parallels. Gordon’s music and lyrics supply the required satiric relevance. The performances are slick and convincing. But if the brief and incomplete summary above suggests a complicated and over-detailed storyline with too many themes, you are onto something. The Cratchit family’s dying daughter Tiny Tammy is a victim of Bleak House’s heartless manipulation of the flawed American health care system. A true child of the DNA age, Estella wistfully wishes she could launch an online search for her lost parents. Wall Street chicanery, world poverty, urban homelessness and Alzheimer’s disease leave Pip and Estella caught up in every social evil short of galactic space pollution. The show is an impressive piece of singing and dancing talent and virtual technology. But it suffers from an exhausting case of ideological overload.