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Hilarious, insightful 'Miss Nelson Is Missing' is not to be missed

Hilarious, insightful 'Miss Nelson Is Missing' is not to be missed

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Lily Jones, left, stars as Miss Nelson and as the students Sabrina Kahwaty, Mike Benoit, Dan Torres and Christine Seshie. (Photo by Christy Francis.)

Sometimes we don’t appreciate how good something is until it’s gone. It’s especially troubling when that missing something is a wonderful, caring teacher who brings us both joy and wisdom.

“Miss Nelson Is Missing,” presented by the Theatre of Youth, shows the dangers of failing to appreciate how good we have it. Marvelously directed by Meg Quinn, this production offers bright and inventive sets, charming music, and an incredibly talented cast who sing and act extraordinarily well. Simply put, this “Miss Nelson” is not to be missed.

Based on the beloved children’s books written by Harry Allard and illustrated by James Marshall, “Miss Nelson” is an enchanting musical play written by Joan Cushing. The story follows the profoundly naughty students of Room 207, whose disruptive antics and bad attitudes push their diligent teacher Miss Nelson to the brink.

Seeing that her lesson plans are going nowhere, the desperate Nelson concocts a plan that will re-order Horace B. Smedley Elementary School. Secretly transforming into the wild and terrifying substitute teacher, Miss Viola Swamp, Nelson uses her alter ego’s dark disciplinary powers to frighten the children into becoming good and ethical students who will earn the return of their long-suffering teacher.

In a standout performance, Lily Jones is a revelation playing the Jekyll-and-Hyde duo of Miss Nelson and Miss Swamp. With her devilish black dress and high heels, her demonically long fingernails and green-striped tights, and her wildly intense hair and makeup, Jones looks every inch the witch who strikes righteous terror into the hearts and minds of misbehaving students.

The gleam of joy in Jones’s eyes and the dark delight in her manic laughter make her performance sublime. While ferociously wielding her stick, Jones challenges and threatens the students, who pale before this fierce force of nature that has replaced their teacher. With lightning often flashing as she speaks, Jones is literally electrifying as Viola Swamp.

Along with Kenneth Shaw’s fantastic costume design, the production features excellent stage effects managed by Brittany Wysocki. Chester Popiolkowski’s sound design ensures that we are startled by every blow of Swamp’s dangerous stick, while lighting designer Todd Proffitt uses an eerie red glow to make the substitute teacher even more unsettling.

The actors who play Miss Nelson’s students are excellent, especially as a group. I particularly enjoyed their lovely opening choral performance, which delivers the lesson that angelic voices and kindly appearances can conceal devilish dispositions. The group also performs a fine pantomime of bad classroom behavior, as jumping rope, shooting spitballs, and misusing class supplies become transformed into a dance.

Mike Benoit shines as the prankster Gregory, who pinches and torments Sabrina Kahwaty’s gloriously mischievous Cheryl. Christine Seshie offers exquisite singing as Allison, whose melancholy complaints help register how much the students have missed Miss Nelson. Dan Torres is excellent as Adam, who moves from aggressive rudeness to gentle diligence.

Jacob Albarella is outstanding in multiple roles. He offers key narration as the kindly janitor Pop Hanson, and generates laughs as the inept, Scots-accented Detective McSmogg. Albarella is hilarious as Mr. Blandsford, with his off-putting enthusiasm about bird sounds and his goldfish Lucille.

I was especially touched by the role of stories in this moral tale. Intriguingly, it is story time that the children miss most while Miss Nelson is missing. While the easy lesson from their story is that the Blue Fairy only made Pinocchio a real boy after he learned to be good, the deeper lesson is that stories are what make our real lives so meaningful.

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"Miss Nelson is Missing"

4 stars (out of 4)

Through Feb. 9 at Theatre of Youth (203 Allen St.). Tickets are $15-$28 (box office, theatreofyouth.org).

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