So in Miss Nelson Has a Field Day, the current Gifford Family
Theatre attraction at Le Moyne College’s Coyne Center for the
Performing Arts, it’s hardly any wonder that as this series has
unfolded, the world’s best teacher—the lovely blonde Miss Nelson—has
been overtaken by her Jekyll-and-Hyde counterpart, black-tressed Viola
Swamp, the world’s scariest substitute teacher. Her arrival shakes up
everything at Horace B. Smedley School.
While the rest of us were reading Marcel Proust, the 8-and-under
reading niche has latched on to Harry Allard’s Miss Nelson series,
which began in the 1970s. Each volume contains only about 30 pages with
copious illustrations, but there is always enough action to provide an
hour’s worth of fright and hilarity on the floorboards.
Joan Cushing, in charge of the book, music and lyrics, has led these stage adaptations, starting with the much-lauded Miss Nelson is Missing,
which Gifford Family Theatre produced in 2007. Cushing was previously
known for her adult political satire and links to cartoonist Garry
Trudeau as well as late movie director Robert Altman. Her tastes still
favor astringency over sweetness, which goes over well with youthful
audiences. Field Day also benefits from allusive orchestrations by Deborah Wickes LaPuma.
As the title implies, attention has moved from the classroom to the
athletic field with a heavy note of gloom. The Smedley Tornado football
team has not scored a single point all year and now ranks as the worst
team in the county; no, make that the whole state. Team players don’t
want to bother practicing. The cheerleaders, led by ever-spunky Lauren
(Fiona Cunningham), are tending to droop. We hear a chorus of downcast
voices in the lament, “Doom and Gloom,” with organ accompaniment.
As a pocket musical Miss Nelson Has a Field Day is a model of
logistics on how to get things done quickly in a small space. The
dulcet-toned Sports Announcer (Dan Williams) climbs to a platform
upstage where he can watch all the action. The desk in front of him
holds a keyboard that allows him to evoke a host of different
instruments. For “Doom and Gloom” he delivers an organ that sounds like
something from a network radio soap opera circa 1948.
In general there are two kinds of musical numbers, starting with
larger-scale productions with the chorus in different costumes, either
as students or as players. Genders don’t matter in casting as helmets
or brightly colored wigs provide all the identity you need. Jodi Bova
choreographs the bigger numbers. Interspersing them are extended solos,
some of them parodies, that also allow for the continuing costume
Hard as the losing streak is on the students, the adults seem to be
taking it worse, starting with crestfallen Coach Armstrong (Jon
Wilson). A sure signal that he’s becoming unhinged is his madcap
delivery for “London Bridge is Falling Down.” To cheer him up Cushing
and LaPuma take Field Day around its strangest corner. They
have the coach don a straw hat and fantasize about escaping to the
Caribbean, singing calypso songs. At this point we see a flash of the
1956 Harry Belafonte Calypso LP, the first to sell a million
copies. We can’t expect kids to recall much of this in a quiz, but the
rhythms of the islands do brighten the mood and move quickly.
In the first 15 minutes or so, sweet, benign Miss Nelson (Marissa
Rae Roberts) has not dominated the action nor is she able to raise
spirits of the school or the team. It’s almost as if the entire
audience, most of whom have read the Miss Nelson books, are waiting for
what has to be done. It’s time to call the evil substitute teacher,
Viola Swamp (Roberts in a dual role) to shake things up.
Her entry comes with a cackle that owes a little to Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz,
and her dominant color is black: dress, shoes, hair and lipstick. But
actress Roberts and director Steve Braddock have shaped the character
to look like the illustration in the book, beginning with a long, bent
schnozz studded with a huge, hair-sprouting mole. Along with that Viola
looms bigger and wider than Hamilton, with a mass of black curls on
either side of her head. Then there’s that cement-mixer voice, grinding
razor blades and gravel.
Viola’s bile moves kids and grown-ups alike, starting with the
hapless principal, Mr. Blandsworth (Jon Wilson again), who has to be
coaxed out from his hiding place under a desk where he had been sucking
his thumb, and the chatty cafeteria lady Mabel (Carmen Viviano-Crafts),
who walks like Ann B. Davis from The Brady Bunch, and sports a red curly wig.
Eventually, Viola’s brand of black magic begins to take effect. To
compress time and action, director Braddock employs handy dollops of
slow motion and a flashing strobe, really kind of a dance. The team
lists a roster of Karen the Quarterback (Maya Dwyer and Natalie
Goldberg in different performances), with lanky Daniel as the wide
receiver (Carmen Viviano-Crafts in a convincing gender shift). Other
players are Liam Cunningham, Ben Ranalli, Amanda Brownell, Shane
Humphrey, Alyssa Napier and Mary Nickson. So when the Tornadoes finally
get a chance to score, even the cheerleaders (Bridget Dugan, Arianna
Hege, Sydney Schwab and Grace Tiso) are fired up for a reversal of
As in other Gifford Family productions, director Braddock favors a
kind of user-friendly surrealism, such as Karen Procopio’s Day-Glo wigs
and Shirley Blakeley’s impressionistic costumes, and David Melchionne’s
skeletal sets remind young audiences of the artifice of what they’re
seeing. Unlike electronic media inviting passivity, with which the kids
are saturated, the freshness and invention of live theater can pull
youngsters to the edges of their seats.
This production runs through June 12. See Times Table for information.