The true magic of human kindness and compassion comes alive around Christmastime. No one had more faith in this phenomenon than British author Charles Dickens. His most famous such work, A Christmas Carol, demonstrates his belief that every single sinner can be redeemed, and it forms the strong foundation for a new musical in progress, which I was fortunate to catch in previews at the Rubicon Theater over the holidays. A real review will have to wait until it officially opens, but for now I can give a glimpse of what’s to come. So far, writers John Caird, Sam Caird and Paul Gordon are keeping this often overdone plotline relatable, and they are doing so without abandoning the original’s central message of personal redemption. Transforming seemingly antiquated material into a vivacious spectacle is something of a specialty for John Caird and Paul Gordon, as they are the duo behind the hugely successful two-person musical Daddy Long Legs, the original story of which dates back to Jean Webster’s 1912 epistolary novel.
Young Estella Scrooge (Rebecca Ann Johnson) is ruling Wall Street, but leaving a path of foreclosures in her wake. A direct descendant of Ebenezer Scrooge (Richard Gould), Estella flies off to Pickwick, Ohio to handle a foreclosure personally. However, this business deal becomes a little more personal than she had originally anticipated. It seems the bankrupt building is the Harthouse Hotel, a refuge run by Estella’s childhood playmate Pip Nickelby (Stuart Ambrose). Set up in the haunted Honeymoon Suite, Estella is visited by three ghosts (sounds familiar, right?) who warm up Estella’s chilly spirit.
As indicated by the description of Harthouse Hotel and its proprietor above, part of the writers’ strategy with this version of A Christmas Carol is to revamp and rearrange characters from such other Dickens novels as The Old Curiosity Shop and Dombey and Son. Even in this early staged reading phase, each one was well defined, from snarky Jenny Trent (Alexandra Frohlinger) to autistic Smike (Daniel Stewart).
The overarching theme of Little Miss Scrooge is the value of family. Pip, growing up with a loving family, dedicated his life to creating a shelter for those who have nowhere else to go. In the process, he and the misfit staff of the Harthouse Hotel create an “almost family.” Estella grew up with just her Aunt Marla (Amanda McBroom), who chiseled her into the cold Wall Street tycoon she is. However, when Aunt Marla visits her once again from the afterworld, she apologizes to Estella for not having raised her more lovingly.
But Estella does have a change of heart after her night at the Harthouse. Instead of quitting her job at the corporation Bleak House, she transforms it into a company that can help people. With witty lines and clever references, Little Miss Scrooge carries an engaging version of Dickens’ message of redemption that’s fit for a young 21st century audience.