Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Over the River and Through the Woods
Hale Centre Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Dyana Carroll and David Michael Paul
Photo by Nick Woodward-Shaw
Author Joe DiPietro has had a fairly successful theatrical career. He wrote the book and lyrics for the long-running Off-Broadway musical revue I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, which premiered in 1996 and has become a favorite show for community theatres to present. DiPietro also won Tony Awards in 2010 for his book and lyrics for the Broadway hit musical Memphis. In between those two successful shows he wrote the charming play Over the River and Through the Woods, which had a two year Off-Broadway run starting in 1998 and has also been produced regionally. While this play may not be as well known as DiPietro's two hit shows, it's a clever, funny, and quite moving drama with a few surprises in its plot. Hale Centre Theatre's production features clear direction, beautiful creative aspects, and a gifted cast who instill their characters with plenty of realism and an abundance of charm.

The plot centers on Nick Cristano, a young professional in his 20s who lives and works in the New York City area. Both sets of his Italian grandparents live close to each other across the Hudson river in Hoboken, New Jersey, and every Sunday Nick stops by for dinner. Nick's parents have retired to Florida and his sister has moved far away, so Nick is the only family his four grandparents see on a regular basis. When Nick is offered a promotion that would force him to move thousands of miles away to Seattle, his grandparents are happy for him but also heartbroken at the prospect of their grandson being so far away. So the four set in motion a plan they hope will keep Nick in town.

The play touches on many situations that will be familiar to just about everyone, from the endless joys and unfortunate guilt that can sometimes come from deep family bonds, to the regrets that linger when a child grows up and wants to move away from his family to make a life for himself. The beauty of DiPietro's well-crafted script is that even though the situations are familiar and the characters are somewhat stereotypical, the plot twists and the ending are far from predictable. And, while the title and setup may make you think you're in for a laugh-out-loud comedy, and there are several really funny parts, there is plenty of drama and a number of moving moments in the script that elevate this beyond a lighthearted play.

Tim Dietlein's direction is smart and appropriately not heavy handed, which ensures the serious parts resonate and aren't over melodramatic while also allowing the comic moments to build naturally. The show is double cast and on the night I attended the "orange cast" was performing.

David Michael Paul is very good as Nick, the young man who finds himself in a tight spot since he loves his devoted grandparents and knows he is the only family they have close by, but he also wants to pursue his career. Paul brings an appropriate realistic blend of angst, insecurity, irritability, and downright panic to make the character entirely believable. While Nick often finds himself exasperated, frustrated, and on the verge of screaming at his overbearing grandparents, Paul is never too far over-the-top in his portrayal, which adds to the realism in the production.

Nick's two sets of elderly grandparents are all loveable but somewhat loud, and the four actors playing them are all quite good as they maneuver their way around these recognizable but somewhat formulaic ethnic Italian characters. As his maternal pair, Frank and Aida Gianelli, who host the weekly Sunday family meals, Dyana Carroll and Jim Roehr get the most stage time and they bring an abundance of passion to their roles. Carroll is the emotional center of the piece and her performance is exceptional. While Roehr's Italian accent could be a bit more consistent, the clarity he brings to the role is excellent. Dennis Kelsch and Bobby Jean Owensby are equally as good as Nunzio and Emma Cristano. Owensby instills Emma with humor and warmth and Kelsch adds a few beautifully delivered moments of heartbreak to the show due to the serious health issue his character is facing.

While the four actors playing the grandparents are younger than the characters they play, Cambrian James' wigs and makeup, especially the designs for the two women, help them appear the appropriate age. The five performers portraying this family create gentle characters who are sometimes boisterous but are always believable in the realistic connections they make with the other members of their stage family. Juli Gore rounds out the cast as as Caitlin O'Hare, the potential love interest for Nick whom his grandmother invites over for one of the Sunday dinners. Gore delivers a realistic performance as this practical yet somewhat reserved and distant woman.

The creative elements of the show, including Brian Daily's set and Tia Hawkes' costumes, are all period perfect. Tim Dietlein's lighting is bright and warm, which adds to the charm of the production, and while there are frequent monologues in which the characters speak their thoughts to the audience, the subtle shifts in lighting to spotlight the actor speaking, while the others exit or scene changes begin, keep the momentum of the show and the pace breezy.

Over the River and Through the Woods may on one hand be humorous, sentimental, poignant, nostalgic and charming, but it is also the heartwarming and very moving story of a passionate family and the universal theme that, as one character clearly puts it, "what matters is family." Hale Centre Theatre's production is warm and moving, with a talented cast who will have you laughing and most likely also shedding a few tears.

Hale has implemented many safety protocols for this production, in line with both city and state requirements, including limiting audience capacity, providing socially distanced seating, and requiring masks for all audience members. A list of all safety requirements can be found on their website.

Over the River and Through the Woods runs through February 23, 2021, at Hale Centre Theatre, 50 W. Page Avenue, Gilbert AZ. Tickets can be ordered at or by calling 480-497-1181.

Producers & Casting Directors: David & Corrin Dietlein
Director: Tim Dietlein
Set Technical Director: Brian Daily
Lighting Designer: Tim Dietlein
Costume Designer: Tia Hawkes
Head Prop & Paint Designer: McKenna Carpenter
Sound Design: Tim Dietlein & Joshua Lindblom
Wigs & Makeup: Cambrian James
Audio Engineer: Joshua Lindblom
Stage Manager: Jamie Fleischer

Nick Cristano: David Michael Paul
Frank Gianelli: Jim Roehr
Aida Gianelli: Dyana Carroll
Nunzio Cristano: Dennis Kelsch
Emma Cristano: Bobby Jean Owensby
Caitlin O'Hare: Juli Gore