OVER THE RIVER AND THROUGH THE WOODSby Joe DiPietro
Greater Cleburne Carnegie Players
Directed by Dick Helmcamp
Set Design - Hillard Cochran
Costume Advisor - Martha Twaddell
Lighting Design - Andy Newby
Sound Design - Hazel Bell
Andrew Guzman as Nick Cristano
Dick Hemlcamp as Frank Gianelli
Barbara Rose as Aida Gianelli
Trich Zaitoon as Emma Cristano
Barry Swindall as Ninzio Cristano
Christin Adams as Caitlin O'Hare
Reviewed Performance: 3/15/2013
Reviewed by LK Fletcher, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
OTR is all about the things that matter most to Italians - food, faith and family. (Apparently playwright Joe DiPietro didn't include the value of handbags and opera. We will let that go.) What Tony Award winner DiPietro did include was the passion and sustaining power of family, in particular an Italian American family. DiPietro penned OTR as a tribute to his Italian grandparents in 1998.
A long-standing Broadway icon, DiPietro also wrote the book and lyrics to the musical comedy hit I Love You, You're Perfect Now Change, with composer Jimmy Roberts, the longest-running musical revue in Off-Broadway history, with productions staged in over 150 cities around the world. Other works include Kiss at City Hall, The Virgin Weeps, and the comic thriller The Art of Murder. Most recently, his work has included All Shook Up, an original musical comedy featuring the songs of Elvis Presley, and the 2010 Tony award-winning musical Memphis. His most recent musical Nice Work If You Can Get It, which is a re-imagining of a Gershwin musical, was nominated for Tony awards in 2012, and DiPietro won the Drama Desk Award for Best Book of a Musical. So, it would be fair to say, this Italian Jersey boy writes well.
Over The River and Through the Woods was very successful Off-Broadway and has been a mainstay of community theaters for the past decade. The story is clever, fast- paced and funny. The characters are charming and easily identifiable as someone we all know and love.
The two sets of elderly grandparents, Frank and Aida and their counterparts Nunzio and Emma are loveable, loud seniors desperately trying to keep their 29-year-old grandson Nick from leaving New Jersey for a job opportunity in Seattle.
Nick, with all the angst of an overly-protected, spoiled adult, loves his doting immigrant grandparents but wants to pursue his career. His eccentric grandparents who are desperate to keep Nick near them, and get him married, have other plans which they put into action with great fervor. The play takes place in Frank and Aida's living room but the story takes place in our hearts. At first, it looks like a classic Italian family dinner, but as the story progresses, the characters seem to mirror our own family.
With a lot of humor and some sentimentality, it is a universal theme: family is the center of life. "Tengo Famiglia". Translated, that would mean "I have a family to support". The heart of it is, "my family supports me".
The Greater Cleburne Carnegie Players and talented director Dick Helmcamp had the heart and soul of the story. Family matters. I believe the integrity of the story was not lost on the audience.
What was missing from this community theater presentation was the cohesiveness of the story that could polish this jewel of a script and showcase this community of players. The finishing touches were lacking in a production full of potential and talent.
I have seen this show many times, directed it twice, I know it well. I believe it is good writing and a wonderful vehicle for both community and professional theater. My concerns in a nutshell were this. The Italian accents didn't work, not at all. (I speak fluent Italian, and pretty fluent Italian American.) The visual elements of the show were not period - props, costumes, hair, and makeup. The technical cues were slow and dropped or stopped the pace of the show repeatedly.
The Theater is a large well-equipped auditorium with seating for around 300. (Don't quote me!) Attendance Friday night was about 50 patrons. The audience was loud and responsive. I believe they enjoyed the production. The stage is large and seems to have excellent technical resources and the company has an extensive history of well-done productions and community support. The set design was highly functional and utilized levels and angles well for an excellent stage picture and maximum movement. Of concern, the front door, which was frequently slammed, tended to shake, rattle, and roll. Appropriate perhaps for a 50's show but not for one set in the 1980's.
The realistic set, while appropriate for any working class retired couple in their eighties had little of the charm of the 1980's. Much of the furniture and accessories all looked much too new. Most working class families did very little decorating in their later years. I would expect their home to be a collection of items vintage 1950-1970. Perhaps this nebulous time period was a conscious choice by the director and prop master but it was disconcerting to me.
Likewise, the costumes and hairstyles were eclectic and not reflective of any particular recent decade. The actors looked good - just not appropriate. I just don't believe the attention to detail for what is a period piece were present. There were several occasions where the actors had quick costume changes and the audience waited.
The director took the liberty of adding intimacy to the rather large venue by doing the opening and closing announcements unscripted and in character. While I personally found this a little disconcerting I appreciated the approachability and sense of community that brought to the production.
The most disruptive element in the show was the technical transitions within each act. There are frequent monologues where the characters break the fourth wall and step into a spotlight and address the audience. These were handled two different ways in this production.
First, the character addressed the audience only or second, they addressed the audience and the other characters on stage. In both situations, there was a spot on the actor and the rest of the stage was dark. Fine. What was not fine was the transitions. There were no cross fade of lights and frequently we were waiting for an actor or a light. This consistently stopped the momentum of the show. The pacing of the show had a rather slow start, perhaps in part to some of the technical disruptions. Leading man Andrew Guzman had all of the looks as well as all of the angst to be a believable Nick Cristano. His jersey accent and boyish insecurities were a good element in the mix. His over-the-top panic, energy and irritability, while effective in short doses, peaked way too early and often stayed way too long. The gentle intimacy of the ending was exceptionally well done and could well have been repeated, along with other variables elsewhere. Guzman was an effective listener and had some very good ensemble skills. He was a good casting choice.
The gentler set of grandparents, Frank and Aida, played by Dick Helmcamp and Barbara Rose, created a believable dynamic in this extended family. They sounded more like Lawrence Welk than Italian Americans, but their heart was all Italia.
All four of the grandparent actors were notably younger than the roles they were cast in but this was not reconciled in their physicality or their makeup. Aida's plaintive, "who's hungry?" and Frank's loyal, "Tengo famiglia", are authentic and played as such, reminding us of the ties that bind us to those we love. Both Helmcamp and Rose brought sweetness to their roles and their relationships which was both charming and endearing.
The dynamic tour de force was the duo of Hurricane Trich and Tropical Storm Barry (Trich Zaitoon as Emma Cristano, along with Barry Swindall as Ninzio Cristano). Zaitoon had all the timing and presence of the pro that she is and made Emma a great ol' gal. It was really like having Ethel Merman in polyester on stage, and she did it well.
Swindall and Cristano both plausibly bit into the highs and lows of their lovable characters. The quick patter and rhythm they brought to the ensemble scenes was exceptionally well done. The sentimental, poignant dialogue was served not smothered under sentiment. Barry Swindall had some notable moments saying absolutely nothing at all which is really the mark of a great communicator.
Christin Adams as Caitlin O'Hare, the potential love match for Nick, was a solid addition to the cast as a pragmatic and charming but distant dinner guest. Adams was rather reserved and did not seem perhaps as passionate or desperate as one might think a heavy drinking, desperately single Irish woman should be - but you can decide that for yourself. (That was sarcasm. She did a fine job.)
Ms. Adams is definitely appealing and everything a grandparent would want for their grandson Make plans to see The Greater Cleburne Carnegie Players heartwarming production of Over the River and Through the Woods. They are more than loud, they're passionate, and everyone knows, passion is what it is all about.
Mangiamo. ("Let's eat!")
Cleburne Conference Center
1501 W. Henderson , Cleburne, Texas
Runs through March 24th, 2013
Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays at 2:30pm
Ticket prices are $13.00 and $9.00 for seniors, students and children. Group rates are also available.
For info call 817-645-9255 or visit www.carnegieplayers.org