Italian light

Over the River and Through the Woods

To grandmother’s house we’ll go. Left to right: Rod Loomis, David Campfield, Heather Williams, Linda Nalbandian, Gary Agid, Ruth Brandt.

To grandmother’s house we’ll go. Left to right: Rod Loomis, David Campfield, Heather Williams, Linda Nalbandian, Gary Agid, Ruth Brandt.

Rated 4.0

There’s something new over at the Delta King Theatre this season—an arrangement with Actor’s Equity that allows the area’s professional actors to appear in shows on the old riverboat. And that’s good news, both for the actors (who now have another place to work close to home) and for audiences (who get more opportunities to see these professionals do their stuff).

The first show under the new arrangement opened last week—Over the River and Through the Woods by Joe diPietro (whose musical-in-development, Men, played at the B Street Theatre a few years back). As the play’s title, drawn from an old song, suggests, this is a play about visiting the grandparents. And diPietro is an unapologetic Italian-American boy with an East Coast outlook. The show also dates from the second half of the 1990s, a period when it looked like Good Times might go on forever. The script’s basic premise: a 29-year-old Italian-American boy is torn between career advancement (a big promotion to a marketing position that involves moving to Seattle), versus staying close to the Big Apple, where he has dinner—every Sunday!—with all four of his sturdy, stubborn, working-class grandparents.

The last few years have stripped some of the comic zing out of Nick, the central character. The boom went bust, the advertising industry’s been hurting, and the long, dark shadow of the collapsing World Trade Center towers sort of leaves you thinking that Nick’s personal dilemma is perhaps one of life’s more manageable crises.

DiPietro has a winning way with comic dialogue, but his little homilies about Italian-American culture and keeping one’s expectations of life in perspective are sometimes paper-thin and balsa-light. At times, the script runs too close to the kind of routine humor found on a TV sitcom.

But somehow, I found myself enjoying this show anyway—mostly on the strength of some good performances, and the sense that the addition of Equity actors to the Delta King’s lineup is a positive development. The rating above is prompted mostly because of what the cast does with diPietro’s basically thin material.

Guest artist Rod Loomis—the Equity guest in this production—rumbles and jokes and basically won me over as Frank Gianelli, the old retired carpenter. I’m not sure that Loomis was all that convincingly Italian—we’re talking about a blond-going-gray leading man who’s played Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, and Cecil B. DeMille in Sunset Blvd., in addition to an angel in the Sacramento Theatre Company’s Benched earlier this year.

But Loomis knows how to time a punch line, and use a pause to draw attention. And the running gag about him giving up his car keys (because he can no longer see well enough to drive) carries just a whiff of sad reality, just enough to keep the comedy from sailing all the way into fluff.

Dafe (David) Campfield plays young Nick, and Campfield is one to watch. He was good in a small role in last winter’s production of The Miser at River Stage; and for the most part he does well in a much larger role in this show, given the sketchy character he’s supposed to inhabit. He shows plenty of ability in several scenes here; as he gains more experience and confidence, even better things may come.

Also good are Heather Dara Williams as Nick’s potential girlfriend, and Linda Nalbandian as Aida Gianelli (always serving food). Ruth Brandt and Gary Agid get in a good scene as the other set of grandparents, struggling to decide whether to let Nick know that Grandpa Nunzio has cancer.

Anthony De Fonte, more familiar locally as an actor, directs and keeps the show light on its feet. We’ll be seeing quite a lot more of De Fonte this year; he’ll be in the Sacramento Theatre Company’s productions of Picasso at the Lapin Agile, Cinderella and Art.