‘Miss Nelson Is Missing!’ at Imagination Stage is not to be missed

Based on a classic of children's literature, the show is filled with music, dance, and theater magic.

Children’s theater is one of the most underrated and underappreciated forms of theater that we have. To sit in a room filled with kids, most under the age of 12, and hear their genuine reactions to a live performance happening in front of them is food for the artist’s soul. Yes, their theater etiquette may differ from the average adult’s, but they are warm, they are instinctive, and they are sincere. If something is working on stage, they will let you know. Similarly, if a bit doesn’t land, you will know it. So if raucous laughter and intermittent gasps from a young audience are any indication, Imagination Stage’s Miss Nelson Is Missing! is not to be missed.

Allison (Justine ‘Icy’ Moral) and Cheryl (Graciela Rey) embrace Miss Nelson (Emily Kester) after her return in ‘Miss Nelson Is Missing!’ Photo © by Margot Schulman.

For those unfamiliar with the award-winning Harry Allard book, Miss Nelson Is Missing! is the story of the ill-behaved students of Horace B. Smedley Elementary School’s Room 207. No matter what their overly caring and saccharine-sweet teacher, Miss Nelson, tries, these “worst kids of all” simply won’t listen. Miss Nelson finally hits a breaking point, leaving the class to suffer the terrors of the dreaded substitute teacher Miss Viola Swamp. The kids realize just how much they miss their kind-hearted teacher and how terrible they had been acting toward her and devise a plan to locate Miss Nelson and win her back to school.

Detective McSmogg (Jimmy Mavrikes) leads Allison (Justine ‘Icy’ Moral), Gregory (Theodore Sapp), Adam (Tyler Dobies), and Cheryl (Graciela Rey) in the search for their missing teacher in ‘Miss Nelson Is Missing!’ Photo © by Margot Schulman.

The Imagination Stage original is filled with music, dance, and theater magic. The children of Room 207 are decked out in bright colors, slowly becoming more put together as the reign of Miss Swamp lingers on. Each kid has their own wheeled mode of transport to and from school, much to the delight of the audience (though my six-year-old was especially concerned when the exhausted Alison began rollerskating “too close” to the stage edge). Max Doolittle’s lights bring drama and focus to the stage in all the right moments while Milagros Ponce de Leon’s multifaceted set features its own bag of tricks, transitioning from location to location with ease. Jeannette Christensen’s costumes help tell the story of each child, and special attention must be given to her own magical transformations. From the pink-clad Barbie-esque Miss Nelson to the witchy black-and-green-themed Miss Swamp (both played by the inimitable Emily Kester), and the triple-duty costumes of Jimmy Mavrikes’ janitor, Principal Blandford, and Detective McSmogg, Christensen’s impressive designs combined with Kester and Mavrikes’ acting chops to fool even my own Miss Nelson-obsessed daughter.

Flashy choreography, courtesy of Tony Thomas, punctuated Joan Cushing’s catchy tunes. Although the singers’ words were sometimes drowned out by the orchestrations, the emotions driving each song were clear as day. With high-energy numbers throughout, the moments that truly resonated were those slower, more somber songs. As the kids of 207 begin to imagine what could have happened to their beloved teacher, their sillier ideas are accented by the melancholy voice of Adam, who is miserably convinced that Miss Nelson must have died and will never return. Similarly, the kids truly excel as an ensemble when writing their letter to Miss Nelson, apologizing for their terrible antics and bad behavior, and promising to be better students if she would only return to their classroom to save them from the wicked Miss Swamp.

The kids of Room 207 are endearing, especially as their character arcs become more apparent. Tyler Dobies’ Adam transitions from a paper airplane-making terror to a child experiencing their first throes of existential dread with disturbing sincerity while Theodore Sapp’s Gregory goes from light-hearted, rubber band-clad troublemaker to the sweetest declaration of longing for Miss Nelson’s return. Graciela Rey’s Cheryl is full of overdramatics, but she seems to feel Miss Nelson’s absence more acutely than she lets on. And Justine “Icy” Moral’s Allison shifts from the know-it-all trying to fit in with her ill-behaved friends to the true Jiminy Cricket of the crew, leading them all toward the best routes to get their teacher back.

Jimmy Mavrikes is a master of disguise, morphing effortlessly from the simple, mild-mannered janitor of Horace B. Smedley Elementary to the effeminate bird-call-loving Principal Blandford, to the absent-minded, bushy-eyebrowed, bubble-blowing Detective McSmogg. Although some of his characterizations rely heavily on somewhat tired tropes, his performances throughout are incredibly endearing and earn some of the most boisterous laughter and heartfelt audience responses from the entire production. The honesty that he brings to his three characters is commendable.

Miss Nelson (Emily Kester) stands amid a storm of chaos provided by her students (Theodore Sapp, Justine ‘Icy’ Moral, Tyler Dobies, and Graciela Rey) in ‘Miss Nelson Is Missing!’ Photo © by Margot Schulman.

But it is Emily Kester who had this audience member in stitches. Her characterization of Miss Nelson was so sweet it could induce a toothache. But it was her turn as the dastardly Miss Viola Swamp that stole the show. As she wielded a truly witchy laugh and a stunning voice to match, I watched children and adults alike jump in their seats with each slap of her lethal yardstick. Her bit with gold stars and her assignment of a Mount Everest-level of homework (featuring jokes galore for the adults in the room) were highlights of her terrifying time leading the class of Room 207. When she was caught in the audience trying to make her way to Miss Nelson’s home, she was equal parts terrifying for the students and hysterical for the audience, hiding behind a large paper bag filled with various grocery items that she waved around for emphasis. When she returned to the stage as the mild-mannered Miss Nelson, her wink to the audience was a delicious secret that we all got to join in on.

Miss Nelson Is Missing! is a classic of children’s literature for a reason. It is equal parts comedic reflection of the follies of childhood and a morality tale focused on how our behavior affects those around us. Imagination Stage made a phenomenal choice in commissioning this piece back in 2001. Hot on the heels of widespread education burnout and pandemic-induced elementary school teacher shortages, this story continues to resonate with audiences of all ages over two decades later. Although I am typically a “the book is better” kind of person, I have to admit that, in this case, the play is equally as good and well worth the effort to see.

Running Time: Approximately 80 minutes, no intermission.

Miss Nelson Is Missing! plays through August 10, 2024, at Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda, MD. Tickets ($12 and up) may be purchased online, in person at Imagination Stage’s box office, or by phone at 301-280-1660. Group rates are available for parties of 10+.

Best for ages 4+

COVID Safety: Masks are optional.

Miss Nelson Is Missing!
Based on the book by Harry Allard
Illustrated by James Marshall
Book, music & lyrics by Joan Cushing

CAST
Adam: Tyler Dobies
Miss Nelson/Miss Viola Swamp: Emily Kester
Janitor/Principal Blandford/Detective McSmogg: Jimmy Mavrikes
Gregory: Theodore Sapp
Allison: Justine “Icy” Moral
Cheryl: Graciella Rey

CREATIVE TEAM
Director: Janet Stanford
Music Director/Orchestrator: Deborah Jacobson
Choreographer: Tony Thomas
Scenic Designer: Milagros Ponce de Leon
Costume Designer: Jeannette Christensen
Lighting Designer: Max Doolittle
Sound Designer: Kevin Lee Alexander
Props Designer: Andrea “Dre” Moore

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