A Class Act, 'Miss Nelson' Still Permits a Sly Smile
By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, Nov. 29, 2008
Someone is scrupulously tracking the exploits of "Miss Nelson Is Missing!," the widely performed children's musical by Washington writer-composer Joan Cushing. The droll and sprightly incarnation that's larking about at Imagination Stage -- the Bethesda theater that birthed the piece in 2001 -- is billed as a milestone: the 100th production ever, presumably counting the versions that have landed in China and Papua New Guinea.
Watching the new Bethesda rendering from Kathryn Chase Bryer -- who also directed the 2001 premiere -- it's easy to see why the show has so many notches on its belt. It brims with conflict and drama, without being scary; it balances the perspectives of its zany adult and obstreperous child characters; and it revels in sly comic touches, such as a subplot involving a bumbling, deerstalker-crowned sleuth, Detective McSmogg, whose idea of crime-solving is advertising on milk cartons.
What is more, the musical centers on a topic that looms large in youngsters' worldview: school. Based on the picture book by Harry Allard and James Marshall, "Miss Nelson" chronicles the spitball-shooting, paper-airplane-flinging, rude-picture-scribbling hanky-panky of a certain class at the Horace B. Smedley Elementary School (rendered by scenic designer Meaghan Toohey as a cute tangle of scaffolding and brick and stone facades).
When the mild-mannered teacher Miss Nelson (Helen Hedman) mysteriously disappears, the students (Andrew Boza, Paul Chamberlain, Jamie Eacker and Jade Wheeler, waxing endearingly rambunctious) must survive Viola Swamp (Hedman, channeling gleeful malevolence), a substitute instructor with a witchy demeanor and the interpersonal skills of Genghis Khan. (Designer Brandon McWilliams's amusing costumes for the show include a black dress and poison-green striped stockings for Miss Swamp, and a pink outfit with a Peter Pan collar for Miss Nelson.)
Miss Swamp's nefariousness reaches an all-time high in this particular "Miss Nelson" production: Cushing has written a new, amusingly deadpan scene in which Swamp escorts her students to a Museum of Crime and Punishment, where a guard named Al Catraz (Matthew A. Anderson) shows them ominous relics, such as the original spitball straw that launched the young Clyde Barrow (later to team with Bonnie) on his path to crime. A new song, "The Crime & Punishment Tango," lives up to the waggishness and tuneful buoyancy of the show's other numbers.
Bryer keeps the musical and nonmusical sections of "Miss Nelson" barreling along smoothly, with just enough emphasis on tongue-in-cheek spooky sound cues and sight gags (like the silhouette of McSmogg behind a frosted glass office door, the spitting image of a pipe-smoking, Inverness cape-clad Sherlock Holmes). Particular highlights of the production include the ultra-quirky cameos by Anderson, who, in addition to impersonating Al Catraz and McSmogg, romps around hilariously as the flaky Principal Blandsworth, whose hobbies are practicing bird calls and collecting ballpoint pens. ("I have a collection from all over the world!" he enthuses. "Well, maybe not the whole world. But from all over Rockville!")
Parents attending "Miss Nelson" -- which is recommended for ages 4 and older -- will no doubt appreciate the show's implicit lessons: It's a good idea to respect others, to be unselfish and not to jump rope during geography class. Fortunately, the moralizing pales beside the agile wit -- the quality that's bound to keep Cushing's show bowling along past the 100-production mark.
Miss Nelson Is Missing! Book, music and lyrics by Joan Cushing, based on the book by writer Harry Allard and illustrator James Marshall. Directed by Kathryn Chase Bryer; musical direction, Christopher Youstra; orchestrations, Deborah Wicks La Puma; lighting design, Cory Ryan Frank; properties design, Hannah J. Crowell. Recommended for ages 4 and older. About 90 minutes (including intermission).