Director- Amy Jackson
Stage Manager- Amy Brown
Set Design- Scott Davis
Set Dressing- Misty Baptiste,Tripp Jackson
Lighting Design- Alan Keen
Sound Design- Danica Bergeron
Board Operator- Louis Harvill
Props & Costume Design- Misty Baptiste
Nick Cristano- Billy Betsill
Frank Gianelli- Dan Duncan
Aida Gianelli- Sylvia Luedtke
Nunzio Cristano- Ron Chapman
Emma Cristano- Denise Rodrigue
Caitlin O’Hare- Rae Harvill
Reviewed Performance 3/28/2014
Reviewed by Sten-Erik Armitage, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
The latest offering from Runway Theatre in Grapevine is one that is sure to have you laughing, thinking, and—above all—leaving hungry! Over the River and Through the Woods is a work by Joe DiPietro, who is best known for his comedy, “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.At first glance, the story appears to be a simple coming of age story about the nearly thirty year-old Nick Cristano. As it turns out, the true stars of this script are his grandparents. Classic, almost stereotypical Italian couples who love food, faith, and family—especially Nick.
The first thing I noticed when I walked into the venue was the set designed by Scott Davis and dressed by Misty Baptiste and Tripp Jackson. Such attention to detail! From the photos on the wall to the doilies on the furniture, Baptiste and Jackson created the archetypical warm, stuffy, and oddly comforting grandparent’s living room. Davis and his army of helpers went above and beyond the requirements to build a set that hinted at an entire house beyond the living room in which all the action takes place. Stage right included a door that served as the entry to the home and to create the illusion of conversations happening outside the house. Beyond that door and in to the entry foyer of the home was an inset to the living room that included a window that looked out to what appeared to be a trellised garden. This is a completely unnecessary element of the set, pragmatically speaking. But this feature, along with the kitchen to living room counter and implied hallway built in to the back wall of the set create a sense of depth that takes the audience member out of a theatre and right in to the living room. An impressive feat!
Another design element that went beyond what was needed to aid in bringing the audience into the show as silent observers was the light design by Alan Keen. My wife was the first to notice it. “Look at how they created light shining in through the outside windows,she exclaimed while pointing at the living room couch before the show began. Sure enough, by using xxx, the set looked as though it were being partially illuminated by natural sunlight through a multi-pained window on the imaginary wall that would separate the audience from the living room. This little touch, along with casting shadows of tree branches when dialogue moved outside, was simple, yet effective.
One of the unique aspects of DiPietro’s script is the number of asides made by the cast directly to the audience. When these are done, the action on the set either freezes in place while the character makes the aside, or the action continues in a quiet, non-obtrusive way. The set lighting dims and the character delivering the monologue is pinpointed by a tight spot of light. Again, this happens multiple times throughout the performance. I was impressed by how clean and tight these complicated and time-sensitive lighting cues were executed. I did not notice a single flub or delay during these multiple asides. This speaks well of Keen and Louis Harvill, the board operator.
The show begins with a brief monologue by our chief protagonist, the 29 year-old Nick Cristano, played by Runway newcomer Billy Betsill. Betsill sets the tone for the evening, and does so beautifully. His New Jersey accent seemed natural, and his comic timing was spot on. Right away we could empathize with this young man who was raised up with high family values and loyalties, yet belabored by the pressures of his grandparents to stay local, and get married.
The first set of grandparents we encounter are Frank and Aida Gianelli played by Dan Duncan and Sylvia Luedtke. All of the action takes place in their living room, and they made us feel right at home. When Duncan first hit the boards as grandpa Frank, he was a little quiet. It was difficult to hear his opening lines. Thankfully, as opening night progressed, so did Duncan’s projection. The problem faded away and he quickly became my favorite character in the show. Duncan convincingly captured grandpa Frank’s sharp wit and deep wisdom. One of the most impressive elements of Duncan’s performance was his complete embodiment of the character of Frank Gianelli. He masterfully and consistently gave us the picture of a stooped, pained, reluctantly aging man of dignity. Every step Duncan took was that of an elderly patriarch slowed by his years. At one point I thought that these physical limitations and pains were not characterizations, but real—not for Grandpa Frank, but for Dan Duncan! At curtain call, Duncan dispelled this illusion as he danced his way of the stage. Simply brilliant. By far, Duncan was the understated star of this performance.
By no means does that superlative speak ill of the rest of the cast! Luedtke as Aida Gianelli too put on a convincing performance. There were some opening night jitters and stiffness in her opening monologue, but those faded quickly. In Aida I saw my own mother—a woman passionately loyal to family, and one who solves every problem with food and hospitality. Seeing Luedtke and Duncan together was beautiful. In their interplay was a chemistry that made their long-standing marriage completely believable.
After each of these three have an opportunity to make themselves known to the audience through interaction and asides, we meet the paternal grandparents—Nunzio and Emma Cristano played capably by Ron Chapman and Denise Rodrigue. This loud, boisterous couple quickly endeared themselves to the audience through their story-telling, jocularity, and obvious affection for one another. They too made a believable couple. Chapman had 2 or 3 difficulties with recalling the script, but the ensemble covered for them well—so well, I suspect the audience was largely unaware unless they were familiar with the show. Chapman as Nunzio has a key role in this production with a plot twist that this reviewer will keep to himself for now. Let it be known that Chapman handled this twist admirably. From the moment he let the audience in on the secret through an aside, we could see the burden Nunzio was carrying as he engaged with the rest of the family. Kudos to Chapman for handling such an emotive and difficult assignment out so effectively.
Our final cast member is the Irish outsider, Caitlin O’Hare played by Rae Harvill. Remember the pressure our lead protagonist felt from his grandparents to get married? Well here she is. In a calculated move to give Nick a reason to stay in town and not take the promotion that would pull him away from his family, grandma Emma sets up a blind date over Sunday family dinner. This scene is rich with comedy gold. Harvill as the potential romantic interest holds her own amidst all these strong Italian-American personalities. In a way, she does so almost too well. Instead of seeming like the outsider manipulated into a very uncomfortable position, she fits right in. I know that this character should have an element of unflappability and confidence, but in light of later revelations made to Nick, I would have expected to see a bit more surprise and a period of adaptation in her characterization. Harvill and Betsill created a fun chemistry and potential reluctant romance together. That said, I struggled with Harvill’s presence and delivery at times. Hers was the only characterization that came across forced at times, dispelling the illusion created by the set, lighting, and other players on the stage. This may have been due to her inconsistent attempt at an accent, or not fully embodying and portraying the emotional depth of her character.
The real star of this performance would have to be the script itself. Joe DiPietro has created a comic (and at times, quite tragic) masterpiece. Reminiscent of some of Neil Simon’s best works, the rapid fire writing of DiPietro’s script energizes the show and provides the actors with momentum. This script is gold—and this company mines the precious ore quite well, especially Duncan as Grandpa Frank. The best script will fall flat in the hands of lesser actors. Thankfully, that was not the case! This ensemble possessed impeccable timing and brought DiPietro’s vision to life. Much of the credit must go to director Amy Jackson for leading her ensemble to such a place of mastery.
My wife and I loved our evening at Runway Theatre. From the warm welcome provided by their veritable army of volunteers to the fresh popcorn we enjoyed in our seats, Runway knows how to do theatre. Not an element of the evening was glossed over. You can tell that the entire company—both onstage and off—views this as their family. Thank you Runway, and tengo famiglia!
OVER THE RIVER AND THROUGH THE WOODS
Performances through April 13, 2014.
Friday and Saturday night shows are at 8 pm with Sunday matinees at 3 pm. Runway Theatre is located at 215 North Dooley Street in Grapevine, Texas 76051 817-488-4842; http://runwaytheatre.com/ Tixs Adults- $20 for Musicals and $15.00. Students and Seniors - $12.00. (senior age is 60 and better)