A New Twist on a Childhood Favorite (and a Q & A Session)
How many small kids can you pack into a theater? Apparently a lot. And they like bouncing around in the chairs and shouting aloud during the show. Some parent also brought a crying baby with them. This sort of situation is unforgivable, say, at a performance of The Phantom of the Opera, but this show was as far as you can get from an Andrew Lloyd Webber binge-fest.
The show I’m talking about is the musical called Miss Nelson is Missing which is based on the children’s book of the same name by Harry Allard. It was put on by the Omaha Theater Company for Young People–which by its very name explains the ultra young (and hyperactive) audience members.
If you haven’t read the book before, it’s about a class full of extremely unruly students who always take advantage of their good-natured teacher, Miss Nelson. One day, Miss Nelson fails to show up and a substitute teacher arrives, Viola Swamp. “The Swamp” is as mean as Miss Nelson is nice and she makes the kids behave right quick. But when Viola Swamp shows no sign of leaving, the kids begin to ask, where is Miss Nelson? They go so far as to hire a private detective who couldn’t remember anyone’s name.
The book was illustrated by the prolific James Marshall who has a distinctive style of making all his characters pudgy-faced and pointy-eyed. Marshall made Viola Swamp into a vision of gothic dominatrix with a bad complexion so I was interested in how people could pull of a live-action musical from this.
And it turns out that the musical is a lot more modernized than the original text and had a lot of subtleties that perhaps only the adults in the audience would get (like the part where Miss Nelson asks the class, “Who’s the president of the United States?” One kid answers, “Arnold Schwarzenegger!” and another answers “Howard Dean!” and the two start a mini-fight in the classroom before Miss Nelson could break it up). Instead of a real scary witch like the original Viola Swamp, the musical’s version was a whirlwind of gaudy neon pink, yellow, and black with a wig in the shape of a matador’s hat and the face of the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz.
It was hilarious. I was in stitches when Viola Swamp decided to give the class homework which went something like this: “For math, do all the problems at the end of chapters 6, 7, and 8–due tomorrow!; read pages 95 to 175 in your history book and write a 500 word essay on the fall and decline of Rome–due tomorrow!; for spelling, study the next 45 words–the test will be tomorrow!; for philosophy write a 1000 word essay on the different views of Aristotle and Plato–due tomorrow!; for physics, write a report on quantum mechanics and string theory–due tomorrow!; and also find a cure for cancer–due tomorrow!”
Obviously Miss Nelson is Missing is neither serious or deep, but it’s a fun show and you’ll be grinning from ear to ear even if you’re surrounded by a bunch of six-year-olds.
There was also a question and answer session after the show, but all the questions where asked by very young kids–and they were all “technical” in nature but I’ll reproduce the ones I remember anyway:
Question: How old are you [the cast] really?
Answer: (Samantha Butler, who plays the student named Allison) We’re all twenty-something.
(Brian Priesman, who plays the student named Adam) I’ll volunteer my age. I’m twenty-seven.
(Jill Pennington, who plays Miss Nelson and Viola Swamp) He’s the oldest.
Q: When did you start acting?
A: (Alex Wolfson, who plays Pop Hansen, Principal Blandsford, and Detective McSmogg) We all started when we were pretty young, around your age. I started when I was about six.
(Matt Lang, who plays the student named Gregory) It’s actually never too late to start anything, although I got kicked off the wrestling team when I was in eighth grade. (Lang has a very slight build.)
Q: How did you decide to do this musical?
A: (Priesman) Actually we didn’t decide to do this musical. The artistic director and technical director back in Omaha got together with parents and teachers from Nebraska and from the rest of the country to decide what kids like you would like to see.
Q: How long are you doing this musical?
A: (Michele Freeman, who plays the student named Cheryl) We started this in September and rehearsed for about three weeks before our first show. The run will end sometime in May and we’ll be in 80 different cities around the country.
Q: Why do you use microphones?
A: (Butler) Actors learn how to project their voices when they’re on stage, but when you’re doing something like this often, you have to preserve your voice so we use microphones so all of you can hear us.
Q: How did you get the props on stage?
A: (Lang) We used the elevator near the loading dock. It took ten, no eight trips. The props all come in pieces so on stage we have to nail and hammer everything together like a puzzle. It takes about two hours to get everything up.
Q: Who made the props?
A: (Priesman) Back in Omaha, the set designer Mark Lewis made all the props. He has read all the Miss Nelson books and from that, he made a lot of drawings for what he thought the school, Miss Nelson’s house, and the detective’s office would look like. After that he got a bunch of carpenters and technicians together to help him build this.
Q: Are those glasses real?
A: (Lang, who wears the said glasses) Nope. This is a prop.
Q: How is it like being Miss Nebraska?
A: (Pennington) [to the rest of the audience] If you haven’t looked at the program, I was Miss Nebraska in 2000. I thought it was great. I met a lot of people and made some great friends and got to go to the Miss America pageant. In fact later this week, I’m going to meet up with Miss Maine, Miss Vermont, and Miss New Hampshire from my year.
Q: Who made Viola Swamp’s dress?
A: (Pennington) The costume designer, Sherri Geerdes made the dress. In fact, she either bought or sewed all the costumes you see here tonight.