Review: ‘Over the River and Through the Woods’ by The Warner Stage Company

Nancy Sasso Janis

  • OnStage Connecticut Critic

“Tengo famiglia.”

‘Over the River and Through the Woods’ is a very funny family comedy written by Joe DiPietro. The Warner Stage Company presented a wonderful production for two weekends under the direction of Lynn Paulella Beard in their stage two, the intimate Nancy Marine Studio Theatre. 

The title of the piece is from the song of the same name which begins “Over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house we go. The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh through the white and drifted snow.” The theme of the love of family runs throughout this warm-hearted comedy. The play takes place in Hoboken, NJ and follows the lives of an Italian-American family. Marketing executive Nick Cristano visits his four grandparents every Sunday for a traditional Italian dinner that are governed by the three “F’s” - family, faith and food.  

When Nick is offered a promotion that requires a move to Seattle, the two sets of grandparents come up with a plan to keep their last remaining relative in New Jersey. As he wrestles with his decision to stay or go, he faces the tough question of “How much do you owe the people who care for you? How much is enough?” He ultimately learns not only how much he is loved by his grandparents, but also how much they mean to him and he also recognizes the difference between each generation’s concept of family and home.

As the audience met the two sets of grandparents in the first act, the laughs came as fast at the courses of the meals. The second act was a bit more dramatic, but was seasoned with a relieving laugh in the right places. I was fascinated with the relationships of the two couples who have been together so long; the performances of the four veteran actors portraying the grandparents were so strong that we felt like they were related to us.

The references to Italian heritage made it even funnier for me, but this family could easily be of any nationality. Some of the pop culture references to an unused VCR or a game of Trivial Pursuit might have been missed by the youngest members of the audience, but most of us couldn’t help but laugh at the memory of them.

 Photos by Mandi Martini. ©2016 The Warner Theatre

Photos by Mandi Martini. ©2016 The Warner Theatre

Christopher Franci (Johnny in ‘Green Day’s American Idiot’) as Nick/Nicholas/Nicky got the first monologue; great comic timing and hysterical reaction shots served him well in the first act and his strong acting made the second act even better. The other young adult in the cast was Chanel Erasmus, who is originally from Cape Town South Africa, as one grandmother’s beautiful secret weapon. 

Len Fredericks was the very Italian Frank Gianelli in his Warner Stage debut. He gave such a strong performance that he made me miss my grandpa Nick dearly. His wife Aida was played to perfection by Kathi Walker in her community theatre debut. She was a natural in every way. 

The paternal nonni were played by the always endearing Scott Stanchfield (Andy Gorski in Goshen Player’s ‘Greetings’) as Nunzio Cristano and Lea Dmytryck as his wife Emma. It was so much fun to watch these two interact as a long-time married couple who may complain about each other but are still very much in love. Emma firmly believes that a Mass card is the answer to just about anything. 

The set of the home built by one of Nick’s grandfathers that was designed by Steve Houk was decorated to accurate perfection, complete with a working front door, crocheted afghan, a garden statue of the Virgin Mary and a seemingly working kitchen. The actors got to enjoy plenty of edible props brought out on trays by the resident nonna. Renee C. Purdy chose the accurate costumes for the six actors and everything was lovingly lit by Matthew R. Delong.