OUR MISS BROOKS at Newtown Arts

by Walter Bender

Newtown Arts Company’s latest production, OUR MISS BROOKS, opened Thursday August 25. OUR MISS BROOKS is based on the radio show starring Eve Arden in the title role which ran from 1948 to 1957, spawning a television series (130 episodes between 1952 and 1956), a movie, and several theatrical productions.

The cast of OUR MISS BROOKS, running at Newtown Arts Company through August 31.

In this production, teacher Miss Brooks (Margaret DeAngelis) is dreaming of a Caribbean vacation, since she is not needed to direct the school play this year. She discusses her plans with the basketball coach Mr. Longacre (Stuart Myles in this performance), glad that she does not have to fight with him for rehearsal time in the gymnasium. Suddenly, plans change as Miss Wadsworth the principal (Mary Ann Wylie) informs Miss Brooks that Miss Audubon the music teacher (Amelia Arrigo) is ruining the auditions for the play and Miss Brooks must take over as the director. Things get much more involved as Ted, the star basketball player (Rob McBride) decides to do the play instead of practice with the team, vain and selfish Rhonda Allen (Shannon Fahey) loses the lead role to unassuming Jane (Laura Baratta), and Rhonda’s mother, school board president Mrs. Allen (Martha Stringer) threatens Miss Brooks’ job if she does not pull everything together.

Unfortunately, this is not one of the tighter productions I have seen at Newtown Arts. The production was desperately in need of a dramaturg or historian to assist the director. There were numerous instances of costuming or actions that were current-day rather than 1956, as we were told the play took place in. (Nikes? High Fives??) It was apparent that the cast (and perhaps the production staff) had not studied the original radio and television productions, as there were things on stage that were happening that would not have happened in Miss Brooks’ class. The students would have been much more respectful of Miss Brooks and each other. Many of the characters are based on the classic series, and the cast was not true to the identities of the iconic characters. I was also troubled by a serious lack of stage discipline in some of the younger actors, especially one young man whose actions bordered between ill-conceived and offensive. This is OUR MISS BROOKS, folks, not PORKY’S.

There were some other issues…the pace at the beginning of the production was sluggish as the actors seemed to struggle a bit getting into the flow of the play. There were “theme songs” for the entrances of several of the characters, which was interesting but distracting in most cases. There were a couple of occasions where a slide or video was projected on the back wall of the set…again, an interesting concept but it did not work, and in fact distracted the audience from the storyline. And there was some very poor technical work in general, with the house lights raising and lowering at odd times, the curtain opening and closing prematurely, and music levels either way too low or high most of the time.

All this being said, there were things to enjoy about the performance as well. The performances of Barbara Cavanaugh, Mary Ann Wylie and Martha Stringer as Miss Finch, Principal Wadsworth and Mrs. Allen respectively were very solid. Ms. DeAngelis and Mr. Myles also gave good performances when they were not trying to “act” (their scenes of mutual flirting were a bit forced.) And Shannon Fahey as the spoiled and self-indulgent Rhonda was perfectly over-the-top. Director Lori Steel Naglak had a lot of good ideas that she put into her production, some of which did not work for me, but the audience seemed to enjoy them.

Many of the things I saw on opening night are correctable, and I hope they have been addressed. The Newtown Arts Company has cut a very nice niche in the theatre world, performing classic shows and donating much of their profits to charity. I look forward to their next production. This one is not indicative of the work I have seen in the past.

By Christopher Sergel
Directed by Lori Steel Naglak
August 25-31, 2011
Newtown Arts Company
120 North State Street
Newtown, PA
215- 860-7058

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