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School of hard knocks

Miss Nelson Is Missing

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The Family Series of Synchronicity Performance Group frequently features children's shows with teeth. They may be baby teeth, true, but they also tend to be a little more pointed and weighty than the usual fluffy fare aimed at youngsters.

Synchronicity's Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day musicalized Judith Viorst's classic kids' book about the unfairness and annoyances of childhood. With its latest family show, Miss Nelson Is Missing, robustly directed by Clint Thornton, the company offers young ones a tough-love message that's clever without being cutesy.

Rachel White plays Miss Nelson, the sunny but put-upon teacher of Room 207, occupied by "The Worst Kids of All" (energetically played by Drew Archer, Jimi Kocina, Taylor Driskill and Erin Lorette). Run ragged by her unruly students, Miss Nelson fails to come to school one day, to be replaced by witchy, ruler-wielding substitute Viola Swamp (also played by White).

Joan Cushing's musical adaptation draws from the book of the same name by Harry Allard and James Marshall (who may be best-known for zany, kid-friendly series The Stupids, made into a Tom Arnold film in 1996). Cushing's version adds a smidgen or two of grown-up irony, such as the scene in which Miss Swamp assigns the class to, among other things, read the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, master String Theory and cure cancer – all overnight. Rochelle Barker's compact but vivid set manages to look both realistic and slightly more vivid than life.

While the book more simply presents schoolkids learning to appreciate a nice teacher when faced with a mean one, Cushing's play finds deeper implications. Though she constructs silly musical interludes around a bumbling detective and a tedious principal (both played by Patrick McColery), the heart of Miss Nelson Is Missing depicts kids learning discipline, self-control and generally how to be better people. As the students, the cast amusingly captures their early rambunctious behavior, but also sweetly conveys their glimmers of maturity. If the kids in the audience can take that lesson to heart, parents will find Miss Nelson Is Missing cheap at half the price.

Miss Nelson is Missing. Through May 20. $15-$20. Wed.--Thurs., 10:30 a.m.; Sat., 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.; Sun., 2 and 4 p.m. Synchronicity Performance Group, 7 Stages Backstage Theatre, 1105 Euclid Ave. 404-484-8636. www.synchrotheatre.com.

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