I remember Miss Nelson. I remember the kindly young teacher driven batty by the especially naughty students of Room 207. And I, of course, remember nasty, mean, odorous Viola Swamp. Those are prime recollections for a child of the ‘80s, and it was high nostalgia-seeking mode that I attended Adventure Theatre’s musical adaptation of this foundational text of the Millennial Generation.
Director Jennifer Nelson is blessed with a sharp group of four actors as the unruly denizens of Room 207 and she keeps the troupe moving, striking a nice balance between group choreography and individual mayhem. Calvin McCullough as skateboarding, sideways baseball-capped Gregory and Sherry Berg as perpetually garbage-pail-behelmeted Cheryl are the highlights, with sharp comic acting. The ensemble clearly enjoys working in this environment and seize every opportunity to ham it up pleasantly for their young audience.
Jessica Lauren Ball’s Viola Swamp certainly knows how to make an entrance, with her first moments as Swamp among the show’s best. Ball’s a gifted physical comedian (she plays both Nelson’s incarnations) and gives her all, but vocal problems plagued her performance opening night. Despite the modest size of the Adventure Theater space, her vocals were routinely drowned out by the musical score and/or the other ensemble members. More dismaying, her Swamp’s intimidation tactics tend towards the grating and oddly physically threatening. A recurring non-joke involving loud near-miss thwaps of a yard stick on a desk got old fast. Ball fares better with Nelson’s put-upon cheeriness, and during the nights best bit in which Swamp doles out a series of ever more impossible homework assignments. Aryna Petrashenko’s costumes don’t help Ball’s cause. Petrashenko has designed a Swamp more goth catalog model than nightmare substitute teacher, complete with stiletto boots, stylishly red-streaked black wig and darkly sparkling three-inch fingernails. The odd effect is of an equally more glamourous and more violent, bullying Swamp than suits the source material.
Cushing never quite solves the problem of mining an hour of musical comedy out of ten minutes of reading material. There’s plenty of padding here, including plenty of gags peppered with with hyper-local references for the adults in the crowd. An extended field-trip digression to DC’s Museum of Crime and Punishments results in the night’s longest and darkest musical number, with the youngsters given a taste of a big house that starts to get draining as Swamp piles indignity upon indignity on her students. More successful are a nice ensemble number by the students as they pine for poor, lost Miss Nelson and a visit from Matt Dewberry’s Principal Blandsworth who croons to the kids about his exceedingly boring hobbies in a nice number cribbed from the book’s sequel.
There are problems of theme here. I’m far from the type to think family entertainment needs to be all sweetness and light, but I’m unsure what exactly kids are supposed to get out of this “Miss Nelson”. That if they disobey their teachers, they’ll be jailed or threatened with physical violence? I’m not sure that’s quite in line with Allard’s books, with their relatively gentler Swamp. And yes, I did my research here, thanks to some lovely You Tube read-alongs of the original books which I leave readers to Google as you please.
The real highlight of “Miss Nelson” might be her classroom. University of Maryland graduate student Ruth Marie Tenoria has made a stunning professional design debut and has blessed both cast and audience with plenty of classroom-derived nooks and crannies in which to play. The delights are in the details. A spinning calendar marks the endless days of Swamp’s reign of terror. Chalkboard-painted walls festooned with doodles and words of encouragement make for a room that feels lived and taught in, the fiefdom of a younger, more idealistic Miss Nelson. Children in the audience are even given free reign to doodle on chalkboard-painted isles pre-show. It’s all delightful. And oh, those wonderful LED-lit paper airplanes!
Note to Ms. Tenoria: start selling those on Etsy like, now.
Miss Nelson is Missing . Based upon the books Miss Nelson is Missing! And Miss Nelson is Back! by Harry Allard . Book, Music and Lyrics by Joan Cushing . Directed by Jennifer Nelson . Featuring Jessica L Ball, Matt Dewberry, Gracie Jones, Sean McComas, Calvin McCullough and Rachel Viele . Music direction: George Fulginiti-Shakar . Choreography: Kelsea Edgerly . Scenic Design: Ruthmarie Tenorio . Costume Design; Aryna Petrashenko . Produced by Adventure Theatre MTC . Reviewed by Ryan Taylor.