Sunday, April 18, 2004

'Over the River' gets lost in Showboat production

Theater review

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Jeff DeMaria (left), Eleanor Shepherd and Bill Hartnett star in Over the River and Through the Woods.
You've gotta love that the title of Showboat Majestic's summer season opener begins with "Over the River..." and an overflowing river has bounced the family comedy inland, from the Public Landing to Covedale Center for the Arts, at least through today.

Summer theater can have its own definition - call it theater-lite, to go with rising temperatures and humidity. Showboat, an historic landmark on the Ohio, is a tradition with a lot of audiences (the subscription base of more than 2,300 is equal to that of Ensemble and Cincinnati Shakespeare combined) whose silver hair suggests senior citizen discounts.

I mention all this for two reasons: the subject matter of Over the River and through the Woods is loving old country grandparents and their 29 year-old grandson which, as written by Joe DiPietro, plays like a self-contained, TV movie-length episode of Everybody Loves Raymond.

This is not entirely a bad thing. Raymond is a smartly written situation comedy, but it's smarter than Woods, which tends to overstate its sentimental points.

DiPietro has written Woods with his heart on his sleeve and from the fond laughter going through the audience Thursday (the show's last night aboard before decamping), the play hits a lot of happily familiar chords, whether it's a granny who lives to feed the people she loves or a granddad Nunzio for whom memory is a game of trivial pursuit. Nunzio's inward search for details plays like the old Abbott and Costello routine "Who's on First?")

The second reason is that Showboat's grandparently audience is likely to be as forgiving of the production as the grandparents on stage are of the grandson eager to move away to discover his future.

The material is ideal summer theater fare, but director Tim Perrino and his cast don't enliven it or make it real.

Jeff DeMaria is attractive as grandson Nick, but in the Ray Romano/Jerry Seinfeld role of narrator/straight man he demonstrates exactly how deceptively difficult getting this right can be. You don't really believe DeMaria.

Perrino does a better job as set designer than director. The living room of the Hoboken bungalow has all sorts of little touches, from photo frames to a crucifix with palm fronds, which speak to who these people are. The actors don't have as much ethnicity. A dialect coach would have helped.

Bill Hartnett does a good job of emotionally connecting with maternal grandfather Frank.

Over the River and through the Woods, 2 and 7 p.m. today at Covedale Center for the Arts, 4990 Glenway Ave.) is expected to return to Showboat Majestic at Cincinnati's Public Landing starting Wednesday. Check with the box office on river conditions and for reservations at 241-6550.


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