- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 23, 2003

The sophomore slump has hit Smedley Elementary School, home of the kindly — but no pushover — Miss Nelson. A beloved teacher, Miss Nelson (Dawn Ursula) — and her alter ego, the mean and snarly Miss Viola Swamp — were the subject of the joyous 2002 musical, “Miss Nelson is Missing,” which featured Joan (aka Mrs. Foggybottom) Cushing’s pun-der-ful music and script based on the picture book by Harry Allard and James Marshall.

“Miss Nelson” was a hit for Imagination Stage and went on to win the top award at the National Children’s Theatre Festival.

Miss Cushing has returned to adapt “Miss Nelson Has a Field Day,” and while the show does have its dynamic moments, it lacks the bounce and fun of the first musical. “Field Day” never quite gets off the ground and has problems sustaining a peppy pace that will keep the youngsters riveted.

A glaring problem is the set, which is primarily a football field. Despite being painted in bright, citrus colors, the set seems huge and yawning, making the cast of six seem so far apart they look like they must first dial a “1” to talk to one another. There also were some technical glitches that caused the scenery to either wobble precariously or descend at too stately a pace. Sound glitches also distorted the voices of the energetic cast.

The story revolves around the dismal Smedley Tornadoes football team, which has a perfect record of defeats — not to mention a penchant for running down the wrong side of the field. The players (Alexander George, Tim Tourbin and Steve Wannall) are discouraged and insolent, and think their coach (Richard Bradbury) is a joke.

Even the cheerleader (Tara Giordano, who cheers and leaps her heart out in the role) is getting weary of shaking her pom-poms to no effect. Enter Miss Viola Swamp, clad in a fabulously witchy pair of high-heeled sneakers and sporting glittery talons, who is determined to make the Tornadoes a force of nature once again.

In the process, the players learn about teamwork, respect (both for themselves and others) and the importance of not giving up.

Inspiring material, right? But for some reason, “Field Day” feels flat and off-kilter. The songs are merely pleasant and nice, and the big number—when the players look to the past for inspiration — evokes done-to-death people like Christopher Columbus and the Wright brothers. Only the part of the song dealing with Harriet Tubman seems fresh and new.

Giving the spatula-wielding cafeteria lady (Mr. Wannall) not only a voice, but a song, is an effective way of expanding the picture book, but overall, the show seems padded and stretched out. There’s only one place where the slower pace works, and that’s in the slo-mo sequence that gives a hilariously “Chariots of Fire” quality to the Smedley’s victorious game against their arch-rivals.

These bright spots strive to make “Field Day” well, a field day, but not even the growlingly motivational techniques of Miss Viola Swamp can keep this musical aloft.

..

WHAT: “Miss Nelson Has a Field Day” by Joan Cushing, based on the book by Harry Allard and James Marshall

WHERE: Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda

TIMES: 12:30 and 3:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; special weekday holiday matinees at 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. on Friday , Dec. 26, Dec. 29 to 31, Jan. 2; special evening performances at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 3 and Jan. 10. Continues through Jan. 11.

TICKETS: $7.50 to $10

PHONE: 301/280-1660

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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