BWW Reviews: Adventure Theater's Viola Swamp Scares her Students but Audiences Laugh
Audiences will find plenty to enjoy in Adventure Theatre Musical Theater Center's MISS NELSON IS MISSING, at Glen Echo Park, in Glen Echo, Maryland. Jennifer Nelson directs Joan Cushing's 55-minute adaptation of the first two books in Harry Allard's classic trilogy, which first appeared in 1977. An able ensemble cast, a stellar performance by Actor's Equity member Jessica Lauren Ball in a dual role, clever lyrics by Ms. Cushing, and an eye-pleasing combination of set, costumes, and properties by Ruth Marie Tenorio, Aryna Petrashenko, and Andrea Moore, include adult audience members in the fun.
If Madame Giry wore glitter on her black dress and banged on the floor with a yardstick instead of a cane, she would resemble Viola Swamp, the substitute teacher in room 207 of the Horace B. Smedley Elementary School. Miss Swamp boasts that she is meaner than Miss Hannigan, introduces herself to the students by scraping her fingernails on the chalkboard, overloads them with homework, and subjects them to a dismaying tour of the Museum of Crime and Punishment, where they learn how Al Capone and Bonnie and Clyde got their start lobbing spitballs and paper airplanes. Brimstone and treacle anyone?
But what happened to Room 207's permanent teacher, the sweet but ineffectual Miss Nelson, whom the class bedeviled with practical jokes and treated with disrespect? Miss Nelson seems to have disappeared without a trace. The students launch a search, hoping to convince their teacher to return to school and free them from the odious Miss Swamp. Spoiler alert for five-year-olds but probably unnecessary for anyone older than that: Miss Nelson returns, now appreciated, Miss Swamp disappears, and the students never realize the secret that Miss Nelson imparts to the audience - she disguised herself as Miss Swamp to teach the kids to respect those who treat them kindly.
Ms. Ball, a Helen Hayes nominee who plays both Miss Nelson and Miss Swamp, has previously starred in THE SOUND OF MUSIC, WEST SIDE STORY, GREASE, and OKLAHOMA " in local professional productions, and toured nationally in THE PAJAMA GAME. Ms. Ball's beautiful soprano voice and her stage presence belong on Broadway. Cameron Mackintosh, are you reading this?
The set, costumes, and props are worthy of special mention for their clever design and attention to detail. The elaborate set transforms from an old-fashioned classroom to the Museum of Crime and Punishment (complete with jail cells), a police station, and the street outside Miss Nelson's home. The details include windows on the classroom doors, where the room number appears reversed to the people inside, and wooden loudspeakers that blare out public address announcements. Miss Nelson wears a schoolmarmish vest and plaid skirt and glasses with dark frames, all of which immediately telegraph "sweet teacher." The four students' modern clothing styles, and the earbuds and backward baseball hat help ensure that, despite the vintage appearance of Room 207, the children in the audience understand that these students are kids like them.
The humor appeals to multiple ages; the Beltway traffic jam references and the satiric alma mater song get laughs from the adults, while the loudspeaker invitation for the students to try out for the production of "Everybody Poops" is designed to set the kids in the audience giggling.
I do have a few quibbles that readers should feel free to dismiss as political correctness. Matt Dewberry distinguishes his four characters, the wise janitor, the obnoxious principal, the sadistic tour guide, and the befuddled detective, by giving them different mannerisms and speech. The wise janitor's grammatically incorrect speech could provide a teaching opportunity for children, informing them that if they are not educated, or, if they are educated but do not speak properly, their job opportunities may be limited, regardless of their other assets. Mr. Dewberry, however, gives the janitor a Southern accent, creating the possible of offending Southerners; not only is the menial laborer Southern, but the Southerner speaks improperly. Even worse, Mr. Dewberry portrays the imperious school principal, whom the kids despise, as effeminate, which, in my view, reinforces negative stereotypes of gay men who display such mannerisms.
The playwright and director also made some questionable choices. Miss Swamp does a lot of name-calling, some of which I would characterize as verbal abuse, and deliberately steps on a student's stuffed panda, grinding it into the floor. The Museum of Crime and Punishment field trip scene, in which the students don striped uniforms and are chained together, albeit with innocuous cuffs made from duct tape roll centers, unnervingly reminded me of a local scandal after difficult high school students on a field trip to the DC jail were strip-searched. Miss Swamp's angry antics, as well as those of Al Catraz, the museum tour guide, could scare some young children instead of making them laugh. (The show is advertised for ages five and up).
Despite the flaws, I very much enjoyed "Miss Nelson is Missing" and recommend it for children ages seven and up.
Miss Nelson is Missing is appearing at Adventure Theater through March 9, 2014, with tickets priced at $19 each. www.adventuretheater-mtc.org.
Photo Credit: Bruce Douglas