OREM — After reviewing over 100 shows for Utah Theatre Bloggers Association, I have found that the easiest reviews to write are raves and pans. When I write a mixed reviews for productions, I struggle to strike the right balance between being appropriately critical of the production without glossing over the show’s strengths. Writing a review for SCERA’s production of Miss Nelson is Missing!, though, is an easy task because the production is so thoroughly enjoyable.
Based on the children’s books by Harry Allard, this stage adaptation (with script, music, and lyrics by Joan Cushing) tells the story of a classroom of unruly children whose teacher mysteriously disappears. The substitute teacher, Miss Swamp, is mean and strict, so none of the children like her. After more than a week under Miss Swamp’s iron fist, the children search for Miss Nelson in the hopes that she can come back.
The lead actors of Miss Nelson is Missing! were so convincing in their performances that I sometimes forgot that they adults playing children. Their childlike mannerisms and interactions never betrayed their actual age, and I found the disorderly classroom they created to be completely believable. Especially commendable were Mikayla Bounous as Allison and Chance Richter as Gregory. Bounous was a cute elementary school aged child as she enthusiastically jumped rope and tried to get the other children to play with her. Richter showed the innocence of his character as he endured teasing from Adam (Seth Mergist) or tried to play with the girls. But the sweetness of Mergist and of Brooklyn Poulter as Cheryl prevented the four children from being merely a group of demon children.
The performers who portrayed adult characters also produced enjoyable performances. Kathryn Little was sympathetic as the frazzled Miss Nelson, and as I saw her try to cope with the chaos around her I felt a twinge of guilt for all the times that, as a child, I had tortured a teacher. When Little later played Miss Swamp, she became terrifying, and one child in the audience even shouted that he didn’t like her because she was so scary. I also appreciated Mark Pulham, who had double duty playing Principal Blandsworth and Detective McSmogg. Pulham differentiated his characters well and gave McSmogg the appropriate level of silliness. Both of this characters were goofy enough to fit in with the story without being annoying.
Director Julie Nevin quickly established a whimsical mood for the production as the kids created havoc around the classroom and sang about being “The Worst Kids of All.” The genuine humor that Nevin created through the children’s banter was maintained throughout the production and was instrumental in creating an endearing set of characters that I wanted to spend an hour with. Nevin also created movement in several of the musical numbers (like “Carried Away” and “McSmogg’s Song”) that was fun to watch, regardless of the age of the audience members.
I could also write a paragraph discussing problems in the production, but the flaws that I saw were so minor that mentioning them in the review would be petty. Instead, I wish to dwell on the vibrantly colored set (designed by Nat Reed), which was a perfect representation of an elementary school classroom. The posters on the wall, the teacher’s desk, and the chalkboard were all ideally chosen for the setting of the play. Seth Mergist’s lighting complemented the set design perfectly, as it emphasized the fictional story by creating a hyper-reality where colors were brighter than in real life. This made it easier to see the classroom and the town through the children’s eyes and to set adult concerns aside for a while.
Like a good Pixar film, Miss Nelson is Missing! is a wonderful show that is aimed at children, but which adults can enjoy too. I was pleased to see that children outnumbered adults in the opening night audience. With the cast and crew of Miss Nelson is Missing! serving as these children’s introduction to live theatre, I know that many little audience members will want to see more plays in the future. Plus, they made my job of writing a review much easier than it usually is.