Syracuse Stage is streaming a full-out Broadway-style musical, “Estella Scrooge: A Christmas Carol with a Twist,” with superb acting and Hollywood-worthy visuals using cutting-edge technology. This clever, updated take on Dickens’ classic –– originally workshopped in California and produced by Streaming Musicals –– is directed by Brit John Caird, of “Les Miserables,” “Nicolas Nickleby,” “Jane Eyre” and “Candide” musical fame. Caird co-wrote the book with his collaborator Paul Gordon, whose catchy music and lyrics will set you humming.
In this tale for our age, Estella Scrooge is the ruthless New York CEO of Bleak House Capital (“a company of vast importance” reads her calling card), who’s come a long way since her orphan beginnings in Pickwick, Ohio. (The script gleefully bubbles over with Dickensian references.) She’s returned to Pickwick –– and on Christmas Eve, no less –– to foreclose on Harthouse, a community hostel for the down and out, the first step in her plan to demolish failing towns and build high rises and shopping malls across the Midwest.
Managing Harthouse with infinite compassion and insufficient funds is Philip “Pip” Nickleby, her former childhood friend. When a snowstorm prevents Estella from leaving and compels her to overnight in the hotel’s haunted honeymoon suite, the predictable procession of phantom visitors begins: first her dead aunt and business mentor, the manipulative Marla Havisham, then the spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Future (this last none other than old Ebenezer himself).
The traditional tale unfolds in a witty contemporary setting, and we’re hooked from the very first scene: a mass of office workers in strict black and white attire busy at their separate workstations, their frenzied song culminating in “we care almost as much about you as we do your money.” Throughout this wonderful production, the visuals are so fabulous that we have to pinch ourselves to remember this was rehearsed and recorded, as the credits say, “one day, one scene, one actor at a time.”
Cut away to a stylish, arrogant Miss Scrooge at her vast circular desk, reproaching her assistant, Betty Cratchit, for only buying the company’s cheapest medical plan, which pays out virtually nothing. The solution for her sick Tiny Tammy? Stay healthy!
Every moment is packed with engaging dialogue, alternately snappy and sincere, as the denizens of Harthouse count on Nickleby to save them. Actors Betsy Wolfe and Clifton Duncan simply glow in their roles of childhood friends separated by time, fortune, and values.
The multiracial cast of 21 includes Em Grosland as Smike (heartbreakingly sweet waif manning the front desk), Danny Burstein (a stone-blue Ebenezer), Phoenix Best playing lovely twin sisters, and Lauren Patten as Dawkins, like her namesake The Artful Dodger a petty thief, now punked-out and saucy. Dawkins takes one look at Estella and nails her as “a pickpocket in a pantsuit” and “a walking talking Barbie –– are batteries included?”
Songs are topical, moving and memorable –– “We’re Almost a Family,” “Trickle Down,” “Great Expectations” and others will make you long for the album.
Estella’s encounters with her personal demons are rendered as comical rollercoaster punk musical fantasies full of light and fury, signifying everything she’s ignored till now. She’s a cartoon capitalist whose slow redemption we enjoy. Estella’s sense of social responsibility progresses from “I love kindness, but only as a last resort” to “I’m humbled, I’m grateful.”
In this new musical, past and present, old and new dissolve, and creatively, comically, sentimentally unite –– a perfect holiday entertainment.
Syracuse Stage also has another, locally produced show, “Home for the Holidays,” as does Ithaca’s Hangar Theatre –– a “Seasonal Story Jam and Hootenanny.” Curated by interim artistic director Shirley Serotsky, this homey friends and family evening, filmed live in the Hangar, presents a medley of stories read by local personalities interspersed with songs by The Burns Sisters and band.
Traditionals include “Winter Wonderland” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” as well as more spiritual numbers, and we’re ushered out on a favorite: Sally Ramírez singing a gusty “Feliz Navidad.”
The older stories (like the DuBois and Twain tales) feel a bit flat, and Ellen Orleans’ “How to Spell the Name of God” could be tightened. But newer, shorter pieces are timely (Sarah Jefferis’ “Food Shopping in Quarantine”), charming (Peggy Billings’ "Christmas Eve Falls on a Friday"), and insightful (Firoozah Dumas’ "T'was the Fight Before Christmas").
Familiar performers we now get to see again include Sylvia Yntema, Jahmar Ortiz, Susannah Berryman, and Colin Smith, among others. A lively video appears as well, a “Snow Phobia” musical number, with Rachel Lampert’s lyrics decrying winter sung lustily to Vivaldi. The entire 25-scene show streams through this weekend.
In another venue, Lampert, former artistic director at the Kitchen, is offering her latest project for free online viewing. The holidays are a time for gifting, and in sharing this “labor of love,” Lampert is hoping viewers will be inspired to donate to any of the local artistic non-for-profit organizations.
Reprising the adventures of Brooklyn-based Aunt Mae, Lampert has created a delightful half-hour paper-puppet video, “The Memory Book.” A tale of multi-generational love and connection, it reminds us, as do all the other December productions, of what’s really most important.
“Estella Scrooge” streams through Jan. 31. Tickets, $29.99, at syracusestage.org.
Barbara Adams, a regional arts journalist, teaches writing at Ithaca College.