The latest presentation at the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse is titled Miss Nelson Is Missing, and as family-oriented stage entertainments go, Miss Nelson is about the only thing that is missing from it. An hour-long one-act based on a pair of popular children's books by Harry Allard and James Marshall, this show - snappily directed by Brad Hauskins, who also co-stars - bubbles with color, personality, and wit. And the people wearing the costumes aren't too shabby, either.
On more than a few occasions over the years, I've made mention of some distractingly artificial-looking wigs that certain Circa '21 performers have been stuck with, so let me begin by saying that the collection of hairpieces on display here constitutes the production's finest, funniest running gag. Miss Nelson Is Missing concerns a quartet of mischievous grade-schoolers (Hauskins, Sara Nicks, Sunshine Ramsey, and Tristan Layne Tapscott) whose classroom antics lead to their teacher's disappearance, and as designed by the ever-inventive costumer Greg Hiatt, the kids' wigs are perfect representations of those wearing them - they're unruly, and explosive, and fantastically larger than life.
Though it certainly won't hurt, you don't need prior knowledge of the performers' actual hair colors and styles to get an enormous comic charge out of the mops of red curls sported by Nicks and Tapscott, or Hauskins' Beatles-nerd 'do, or the frizzy, jet-black number worn by Ramsey. (It looks like a chubby, lazy cat curled up on her head and opted to stay there.) And the hairpieces donned by Liz J. Millea are similarly inspired; her platinum-blond locks as Miss Nelson give her a chic yet slightly dizzy radiance - outfitted in hot pink, she could be a Barbie doll come to life - and when in disguise as the evil substitute Viola Swamp, the outsize cinnamon buns next to her ears suggest a monstrous aunt to Princess Leia. At heart, this Miss Nelson Is Missing is all about the giddy delight of playing dress-up, and Hiatt's wigs, and his mutli-hued costumes, lend the production just the right amount of storybook stylization.
Happily, this sense of playfulness extends to the show as a whole. With its cast of adult actors portraying elementary-school students, Miss Nelson Is Missing oftentimes resembles a more prankish, scaled-down version of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, and one of its great surprises is that the songs are nearly as clever as those in Charlie Brown.
At April 15's opening-day performance, the sound wasn't quite as sharp as it could've been; some of the lyrics (especially in the "Worst Kids of All" opener) were hard to understand through the onstage activity. But the score, marvelously well-sung throughout, has terrific bounce, and several numbers are wonderfully funny, the best being those performed by the winningly eccentric Vaughn M. Irving, triple-cast as Miss Nelson's janitor narrator, Principal Blandsford, and Detective McSmogg; Irving's principal gets a really clever solo in which he waxes poetic on the banal joys of ball-point pens and his goldfish, and the detective's offering briefly - and unexpectedly - borrows from Rodgers' & Hammerstein's "Climb Every Mountain" and George Gershwin's "Swanee."
And while it's enjoyably apparent that many of the students' hyperactive shenanigans are being improvised by the actors, there are passages in Joan Cushing's adaptation to make any grown-up giggle. Viola Swamp's list of next-day homework assignments - which includes learning 45 new spelling works, reading Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and curing the common cold - escalates with rib-tickling venom, and there's also a terrifically visual "verbal" gag, when one of the students writes "Miss Nelson is a jer_" on the blackboard, is reprimanded, and later fills in the blank with the letter "m."
Backed by a strong script and satisfying music, the performers here seem able to sell the show with a minimum of effort; no one looks like they're trying too hard, yet no one merely coasts. Millea's Miss Nelson is the kindly, accepting schoolteacher of your dreams - it's easy to imagine many of the show's audiences going home with a brand-new crush - and provides sensational fun as Viola Swamp; Millea underplays her comedic hatefulness with a firm, threatening voice. (And, it should be noted, a baseball bat.) And while the grade-schoolers aren't written with much individuality, the actors playing them form a tight, feisty ensemble and have random hysterical moments; Tapscott's open-mouthed terror after answering a question incorrectly is a particular hoot. (Not the baseball bat!)
Miss Nelson Is Missing is devoid of dead spots, and Hauskins deserves credit not only for keeping the action moving swiftly, but - after the loss of a cast member late in the rehearsal process - for stepping into his role two days before the show's opening, and giving an assured, committed performance. Such a rescue isn't unusual for Hauskins (he's filled for absent actors more than a dozen times), but as someone who first appeared in a college production with him back in 1986, it's heartening to see that after two decades plus, the man is still capable of wonderful surprises.
For tickets, call (309) 786-7733 extension 2.