An excellent review of OVER THE RIVER – only one more week to see this awesome show

Over the weekend another great review of OVER THE RIVER AND THROUGH THE WOODS came out in The Star Group newspapers. If you haven’t yet seen Over the River, this weekend is your LAST CHANCE. Take this reviewer’s advice and see the show this weekend before it’s gone. You’ll be glad you did.

The Star Group newspapers

Grandma’s house.
Safe, warm, the place of so many gatherings that bring back fond memories of what really is the most important influence and possession we have: family.
Or, as the Italians say, “tengo famiglia,” — meaning “keep the family,” — but probably much, much more in the original language.
And, as you would expect because you know the next two words in the title from one of the first songs you ever learned, “Over the River and Through the Woods,” playing through Nov. 20 at the Plaza Theatre in Cleburne, is about going to grandma’s house.

An Italian home in Hoboken, N.J.

I recall the warmth, the never-ending chatter and the wonderful food at my grandmothers’ houses in Joplin, Mo., and Galena, Kan., but I don’t remember the non-stop one-liners like those that fly fast and furious in this laugh-a-minute presentation that is the perfect production for the intimate, 160-seat theater-in-the-round Plaza.

Perfect because you can closely watch the visual expressions of the Kevin Poole-directed actors and because every so often, action is frozen while one of the actors speaks directly to the audience, a technique that draws us in on the secrets he or she is trying to hide from the others. It works.

The play is about 27-year-old Nick Cristano (Andrew Guzman in the production I saw but double-cast with J. Aaron Lett) who for 27 years has been having Sunday dinner at the home of his maternal grandparents, Frank (Dick Helmcamp) and Aida Gianelli (Julie Hefner), who loves to cook and eat. Nick’s paternal grandparents, Nunzio (Burl Proctor) and Emma Cristano (double cast with Trich Zaitoon and Shauna Lewis) show up to eat, eat some more and constantly badger Nick about being single.

“I want to see you married before I die,” Emma nags to Nick.
“Let me know when you think you’re going, and I’ll see who I can dig up,” he replies.

The conflict arises when Nick, a bright, ambitious marketing executive, must announce that he has some good news and bad news: he’s getting a promotion but moving to Seattle, which, for the grandparents, might as well be Italy, or Mars.

The grandparents scheme to find a good reason for Nick to stay in the person of Caitlin O’Hare, a neighbor who is pretty and single.
And a vegetarian.

When the grandparents invite her to dinner with Nick and she sits down to the all-meat-all-the-time cuisine, it’s just one of the numerous side-splitting situations in the play.
Caitlin — Annalee Herron in the play I attended and double-cast with Jill Etheridge — actually does like Nick, but he is convinced he needs to move to the other side of the country to escape the insanity of his overbearing grandparents.

It’s great to see Helmcamp, the veteran from the Carnegie Players, involved with a Plaza production. He conveys the “tengo famiglia” verbally and non verbally, and his dialogue with Nick about the old man’s driving problems — he’s been running into other cars — is one of the subplots that run throughout the play.
Proctor, another experienced actor making his Plaza debut, brings some seriousness to the play with his illness, which he keeps from Nick.
Helmcamp, Hefner, Proctor, Zaitoon and Lewis are veterans and, no matter who plays Emma, their talent for timing is showcased when they use a convoluted logic to try and remember who starred in “High Noon.”

The bit is so funny yet frustrating, you want to shout the answer from the audience.

Herron, in her Plaza debut, brings a confidence and self assurance to Caitlin that adds some stability and realism to the whacky world of the grandparents.
If Hefner, Lewis, Zaitoon, Helmcamp and Proctor are the pasta that holds this dish together, Guzman is the sauce that adds the flavor.
Fresh off major roles in the last two Plaza productions — “Smoke on the Mountain Homecoming,” and “All Shook Up” — Guzman is energetic, animated and can hold his own with the veterans. Too bad he can’t break into a song or two.

As always, the Plaza staging is creative as stage manager Analaura Keith makes sure every inch of space is used to the maximum.
See it. Better yet, if you can, take your grandparents with you.

And here’s another suggestion as the holidays approach. Why not consider season tickets to the Plaza as a gift to yourself or for someone else.
Plaza sold more than 800 season tickets last year and is committed to cap the sale at 1,000 this year, but they’re going fast. Call the box office and ask about season tickets.

“Over the River and Through the Woods,” written by Joe Dipietro, with the set designed by JaceSon Barrus, costumes designed by Kara Barnes, lighting by Cameron Barrus, and set dressing and properties by Milette Siler, plays at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Saturdays at the Plaza Theatre, 111 S. Main St., in Cleburne.
Tickets — $12 for adults, $10 for senior adults and students and $9 for children age 12 and under — are on sale at the box office or by calling 817-202-0600.

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