Ask anyone if he or she has ever heard the story Miss Nelson Is Missing, and you will most likely be answered with a gasp of recognition followed by a wistful sigh of "I loved that book." Originally published in 1977 by Harry Allard, Miss Nelson Is Missing is a book that has been passed down from one generation to the next, and now to yet another crop of youngsters in the musical adaptation playing at the Tribeca-based Manhattan Children's Theatre. Since this story comes with a dedicated built-in audience, there is very little a theater can do wrong in the retelling of it. The remarkable thing about Manhattan Children's Theatre is just how much it manages to do right. The stage resembles a quaint, little storybook town, with a green, pink, and yellow ice cream store next to a bright pink police station. The scenery's centerpiece is the schoolhouse: a brick building with white doors that unfold into a classroom complete with a chalkboard, a map of the world, and four little desks.
While this silly, colorful story expertly caters to the toddlers in the audience, it gives more than a few winks of acknowledgement to the adults who accompany them.
For example, when the soft-voiced, rosy-cheeked, angelic elementary-school teacher, Miss Nelson, attempts to engage her unruly students in a history lesson, she is horrified that the children cannot even answer the question "What is the name of the president?" One pigtailed student guesses, "Dick Cheney?" A boy with a spitball-stuffed straw dangling from his mouth answers, "Arnold Schwarzenegger!" Just when Miss Nelson thinks the lesson cannot go any worse, a third boy cries, "Martin Sheen!"
Desperate to regain the attention of her four sweet but dizzyingly hyperactive students, Miss Nelson takes matters into her own hands and turns up "missing." In her place she sends a "substitute"