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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Joe DiPietro's Over the River and Through the Woods
Happily Returns Home to New Jersey

Also see Bob's review of White Christmas

over the River and Through the Woods
Nancy Lee Ryan
As I've previously noted here, New Jersey's own Joe DiPietro first came to my attention in 1996 when the now defunct American Stage Company in Teaneck produced his comedy Over the River and Through the Woods. This audience-pleasing delight depicting the weekend visits of a sweet and sophisticated Italian lad to his simple, deeply loving grandparents in Hoboken had the heart and compassion to go to the head of its class. And it did when it opened Off-Broadway two years later and enjoyed an 800-performance run. DiPietro became the resident playwright for the American Stage Company where, to the best of my recollection, five of his plays and musicals premiered. DiPietro has gone on to continued success as the author of I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change (book and lyrics), All Shook Up (book), The Toxic Avenger and the current Memphis (book and co-lyricist). However, sometimes you can go home again, and to the enthusiastic delight of its Bickford Theatre audience, Over the River ... has returned to New Jersey in a charming production which gives this warm and loving play its full due.

Sundays, just as he has always done for as long as he can remember, single, 29-year-old marketing executive Nick Cristano journeys (now from his New York City apartment) to visit both sets of his grandparents, Aida and Frank on his mother's side of the family, and Emma and Nunzio on his father's side, in the former's Hoboken home. These folks would never dream of leaving the homes and neighborhood where they raised their children and have spent a lifetime. Nick's parents have retired to Florida, adding to the grandparents' emotional dependence on him. Although their love for Nick has no bounds and they are without malice, it is just the way for each of his grandparents to be overbearing and controlling. When one of them says to Nick, "I want to see you married before I'm dead," there is no room for doubt, but that she is speaking for all of them. Contemplating their narrow and shallow world view, Nick wonders, "How did I come from those people?"

Change is in the wind. Although he is fighting the reality of his situation, Frank has reached the point where it has become too dangerous for him to drive. Nunzio's health is failing. And to his grandparents' horror, Nick's pretty much decided to accept a promotion to an executive marketing position with his firm which will require that he re-locate to Seattle. This leads to Emma arranging for Kaitlin, her canasta partner's single daughter, to pay a Sunday call in the hope that she and Nick will make a match which would prevent Nick from relocating.

Michael Bernardi brings a great deal of likeability to Nick with his naturalistic, easygoing performance. Nancy Lee Ryan is delightful as the sweetly simple Aida who never met a crisis that could not be solved with food. Ed Schiff projects the comfort that he feels living within the philosophy of tengo familia, which can be literally translated as "I have family" and more broadly refers to the idea that the basis for a man's honorable, fulfilling life is having a family which for which he provides support and a loving home.

Teri Sturtevant's Emma is most amusing in her determined manipulative efforts to preserve the grandparents' hold on Nick. Jerry Marino makes the audience feel the joy that Nunzio experiences in recalling the good old days. The lovely Noreen Hughes has us rooting for Caitlin to land Nick.

Director Eric Hafen lets DiPietro's play and the talented cast spin their delicate web without excessive adornment, by applying a light, barely visible directorial hand to the proceedings. Scenic Designer Bill Motyka has provided a large, detailed, playable setting which is evocative and looks lived in.

Over the River and Through the Woods is a hilarious and sentimental audience pleaser with the richness and depth to engage the most sophisticated critic. Although it is filled with Italian family values and humor, there is a universality in DiPietro's stage "famiglia" which will awake your own deep seated family memories no matter your ethnicity.

Over the River and Through the Woods continues performances (Evenings: Friday and Saturday 8 pm/ Matinees: Thursday and Sunday 2 pm) through December 4, 2011, at the Bickford Theatre at the Morris Museum, 6 Normandy Heights Road, Morristown, New Jersey 07960: Box Office: 973-971-3706; online: www.bickfordtheatre.org.

Over the River and Through the Woods by Joe DiPietro; directed by Eric Hafen

Cast
Nick Cristano................Michael Bernardi
Frank Gianelli............................Ed Schiff
Aida Gianelli...................Nancy Lee Ryan
Nunzio Cristano................Teri Sturtevant
Caitlin O'Hare..................Noreen Hughes


Be sure to Check the current schedule for theatre in New Jersey


- Bob Rendell



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