The kids of room 207 at Horace B. Smedley Elementary School are the self-proclaimed worst kids of all: Cheryl is a crybaby, Gregory shoots spitballs, Allison jumps rope in class, Adam throws paper airplanes, and nobody learns a thing. Their teacher, Miss Nelson, could be canonized a saint, but she has no control over her rambunctious boys and girls. Without warning, Miss Nelson disappears and the kid-hating, homework-loving Miss Swamp takes over to whip the class into shape. As the days go by, the kids of 207 become some of the best kids of all, but they are desperate for their teacher back. With some visits from whacky characters like Principal Blandsworth, Deputy Al Catraz, and Detective McSmogg, the search is on for the kids of 207 as they try to survive The Swamp and get their teacher back.
From the designs, to performances, to scene changes, everything about Raleigh Little Theatre's opening night of Miss Nelson Is Missing was brilliant. Director Kathleen Rudolph has seamlessly integrated the play's set changes into the development of the story, performed by a cast of teenagers – with the exception of Jesse R. Gephart and Rebecca Leonard – and executed with the prowess of a seasoned company. Thomas Mauney's exquisite lighting and set designs aided in the effortless set changes; without a focused crew, the transitions could have been hairy, but this crew made the transitions beautiful.
Miss Nelson's classroom, the backdrop for most of the play, appeared at first to be a solid wall of brightly colored blocks. Whether casually tidied by Pop, the Horace B. Smedley custodian (Gephart), menacingly displayed by Deputy Al Catraz (also Gephart), or manipulated by the students, strategic tiles were reversed to convey chalkboards in a classroom, jail cells at the Museum of Crime and Punishment, or windows at Miss Nelson's home. Several tiles pulled out to reveal student desks for classrooms that doubled as display cases at the museum, while others swung open for entrances and exits, or as closet doors. At every turn, Mauney's set held a surprise. His clever lighting design combined with the detailed sound design of John Maruca to further establish locale and mood throughout the performance. Creepy green light, backlighting to cast shadows, and menacing music foretold the entrances of evil Viola Swamp. Red color washes and the clanking of chains or slamming jail cells set the mood at the Museum of Crime and Punishment. Throughout the play, lights and sounds brought the already impressive set to life.
The technical work in Miss Nelson Is Missing was both the foundation for a great show and icing on the cake with the talented young cast at the heart of the matter. The kids of 207 – clearly identifiable by Vicki Olson's costume design, color coordinated to match Thomas Mauney's set – offered distinctive characters that every teacher in the crowd has seen at some point in their careers. Eighteen-year-old Connor Gerney was goofy and amiable, but impossibly impulsive as the spitball shooting Gregory. Michael McKenna was both mischievous and compassionate as young Adam, terrorizing Olivia Bouzigard's sweet but sensitive Cheryl who could burst into tears with one wrong look. Adeira Hunter's Allison was a true go-getter, though she didn't always obey the rules before Miss Swamp showed up.
Leonard made Miss Nelson the quintessential elementary teacher: beautiful and kind, with an impossible wealth of patience. Gephart nearly stole the show (Mr. Blandsworth's bird-calls had two young patrons literally out of their seats) and would have if his fellow actors had been less talented. With the assistance of Olson's comprehensive and expert costumes, Gephart transformed completely four different characters: Pop, Principal Blandsworth, Al Catraz, and Detective McSogg.
Raleigh Little Theatre's Miss Nelson Is Missing is an excellent theatre opportunity for families with children of all ages. Students can even experience their own work by printing off RLT's picture frame and submitting artwork of their favorite teacher to be displayed in the lobby. If your child loves theatre, go see this show. If your child has never seen live theatre, go see this show. Even if your children think they don't like theatre, take a chance on this show. Any single component of the production, be it music, performance, or design, is worth the price of a ticket; the total package is dynamite.
Miss Nelson Is Missing continues through Sunday, March 27. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.