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MISS NELSON IS MISSING at Theatre of Youth brings “high production values” to a musical based on two beloved 1970s children’s books.

THE BASICS: MISS NELSON IS MISSING, a musical by Joan Cushing, based on the books by Harry Allard (“The Stupids”) illustrated by James Marshall (“George and Martha”) presented by Theatre of Youth opened on January 25 and runs through February 9, Saturdays and Sundays at 2 at the Allendale Theatre, 203 Allen Street. Audiences will enjoy a “how the magic happens” presentation, Q&A, and photo opportunity with the cast after all performances. (884-4400) www.theatreofyouth.org Recommended for ages 6+ (one-time sensory-friendly show on February 9, see below for details).

Runtime: The show is an hour, but allow 90 minutes for the aftershow “reveal,” Q&A, and photos on set with cast.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  Per the Theatre of Youth: “Spitballs flying across the room, paper airplanes sailing every which way, and uncontrollable children send the nice, gentle, long-suffering teacher, Miss Nelson, over the edge.  But the students of Room 207 are in for a surprise when Miss Nelson is suddenly missing and is replaced by Miss Viola Swamp, an awful, super-scary, meanest–substitute-teacher-ever who assigns a horrendous load of homework and wields her ruler like a sword!  In desperation, the students set out to find their beloved Miss Nelson…. but will they get her back before it’s too late – for them?! [This play has themes] of appreciation, mystery, respect for others, and team problem-solving.

L-R Lily Jones stars as Miss Nelson with students played by Sabrina Kahwaty, Mike Benoit, Dan Torres and Christine Seshie, Photo by Christy Francis

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Now celebrating their 47th Season, their 20th year at the Allendale Theatre, and Meg Quinn’s 27th year as Artistic Director, these folks know a thing or two about children’s theater. Quinn says: “Every play this season creates ‘aha moments’ when a character makes a decision or accepts a realization that become steps towards growing up.  We believe that children need and deserve to have their stories told … about growing up and finding their place in the world.”

And the students do grow up, changing from naughty to nice as they learn to appreciate what they had that now seems lost. And best of all, even though there are adults around (for example the principal and the bumbling police detective) the adults do not lead the way. The children, of themselves, make the changes and come to their important realizations on their own.

The original book was written in the 1970s, long before “helicopter parents” would have swooped in, made demands of the principal, and “fixed” the problem without giving their children a chance to learn a valuable lesson.

Having said that, I was surprised by the ferocity of the substitute teacher, Miss Viola Swamp, who does indeed “wield her ruler like a sword!” The original illustrations made in ink wash by the charming James Marshall show Miss Swamp as a bit cartoonish, thus tempering (at least to my eyes) her aggressiveness. Then again, I recall that the character “Cruella DeVille” in Disney’s original “101 Dalmations” was effectively scary, but didn’t seem beyond the fringe. And, as I wrote above, these folks at TOY know what they’re doing.

The direction by Meg Quinn is, as always, sure and solid without any wasted movement or time. Things move along at TOY aided by Managing Director Tracy Snyder, a clever swirling multiple faceted set by Kenneth Shaw, production management and sound by Chester Popiolkowski, great costumes (several of which require fast changes) by Barbara Priore, and lightning-fast cues by Brittany Wysocki, who is featured in the post-show “this is how theater happens” segment. That’s a new, highly choreographed feature of TOY productions which anticipates what many of the audience would want to ask about. The level of detail is adjusted according to the target age of the audience.

All but one of the cast are TOY regulars which of course helps with the ensemble numbers. The “debut star” is the multi-faceted and experienced Buff State grad Lily Jones who must create two very opposing characters in a short period. Let’s hope that Lily Jones becomes a TOY regular.

Also playing more than one role is local funny man Jacob Albarella as the wise old janitor Pop Hanson, the self-absorbed clueless principal Mr. Blandsford, and the bumbling Detective McSmogg. I am assuming that the good-humored Albarella gets as much of a kick out of acting these roles as the audience does in watching them.

L-R Jacob Albarella as Detective McSmogg with the students Sabrina Kahwaty, Dan Torres, Mike Benoit, and Christine Seshie, Photo by Christy Francis.

The student body is made up of TOY favorites, all expressing the right level of enthusiasm and they are, in alphabetical order, Mike Benoit (Mug in last year’s NEW KID), Sabrina Kahwaty (title role in PINKALICIOUS, et. al.), Christine Seshie (who in last month’s MR. POPPER’S PENGUINS also wowed us with her multi-faceted multi-character chops), and DAN TORRES (Mowgli in THE JUNGLE BOOK, et. al.).

Bonus: Those four make up a very impressive four-part harmony quartet as they sing their elementary school’s alma mater on the steps of the school.

L-R Christine Seshie, Mike Benoit, Dan Torres, Sabrina Kahwaty, Photo by Christy Francis.

Do budget time to stay in your seats after the show for some “behind the scenes” reveals and should that spark an interest in theater, don’t forget the abundance/profusion/wealth of acting classes, each one age-appropriate for students ranging from grades K-12, on select Saturdays as well as during various upcoming school breaks, usually held at Westminster Presbyterian Church. There are too many to list here, so visit the website www.theatreofyouth.org.

Note: Theatre of Youth almost always offers a “sensory friendly” performance (by pre-arrangement only) and for MISS NELSON IS MISSING that’s Sunday morning February 9 at 10 a.m. Visit the website www.theatreofyouth.org or call (884-4400) for special access.

UP NEXT: For an older crowd (12+) it’s an adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s THE OUTSIDERS, March 14 through April 5.

For the very young (4+) an adaptation of P.D. Eastman’s GO, DOG, GO! runs from May 9 through June 6 (Sensory Friendly performance will be Sunday morning, May 17, at 10 a.m.).

Lead image: L-R Eating ice cream are Christine Seshie, Sabrina Kahwaty, Dan Torres, Mike Benoit, Photo by Christy Francis.

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For 20 years, as program host on Classical 94.5 WNED and continuing on-stage with the Buffalo Chamber Music Society, he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?"

As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take." And, on “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM and Saturday afternoons at 5:55 p.m. on Classical 94.5 WNED) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?"

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he has been an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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