"Into the Woods" is a delightfully re-envisioned production by Diablo Theatre Company in Walnut Creek!

This week there are two excellent shows that will provide you with either a thought-provoking mystery or a thought-provoking musical comedy as the Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette delivers “Proof” and Diablo Theatre Company in Walnut Creek provides you with a fresh, new vision of the classic musical comedy, “Into The Woods”. Both productions are exceptionally well crafted, with outstanding direction, casting and set design.

In 1987, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine took Broadway by storm as they re-envisioned our beloved childhood classic fairy tales by creating a musical that imbued several of those fairy tales with a modern twist, asking their audiences to imagine what “forever after” would really be like, if fairy tales were told with endings modeled after “real life experiences”. What if Prince Charming turned out to be a two-timing cad who cheated on his Cinderella? What if Rapunzel had been so sequestered from real life by her overprotective mother that she would never make a compatible partner in marriage? What if Little Red Riding Hood turned out to be a sanguinary, self-serving kid? How would a modern Baker and his Wife handle the wicked Witch’s demands to end the curse that prevented them from having children? Thus, the original thought-provoking musical comedy “Into the Woods” was born and ran for 764 consecutive performances in the Martin Beck Theater.

That production went on to win three Tony Awards in 1988 and at the same time was nominated for 7 other Tony awards. That same year, it also won four Drama Desk Awards and at the same time. It quickly became one of the most beloved musical comedies in recent history. The winner of Best Actress in a Musical in that year (Joanna Gleason who played the Baker’s wife) has come forward to participate in a totally re-envisioned version of this terrific musical by director Ryan Weible that opened this past week in the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek.

I have always loved the original musical version which was set in a magical kingdom in which all of these fairytale characters lived as neighbors in a village next to the magical and mysterious woods, wherein the actions of one set of characters from one fairy tale, directly affect the lives of the other fairy tale characters. Just like in real life, the diverse stories become entangled with the lives of all the other characters in this fairy tale “neighborhood”. In this telling of the story, the setting starts out as an orphanage, where a group of children gather in the evening around a “narrator” (Joel Roster) engages them in the bedtime reading of fairy tales, and as the story teller begins each tale, the fairy tale characters emerge out of the woodwork, walls, floors, and toy boxes to bring the tales alive within the orphanage dormitory. Not only do fairy tale characters emerge to take part in the story, but even the orphanage children become integrated into each tale, supplementing characters as needed. What is so delightful is that similar to Peter Pan bringing the Darling children into the fairy tale, this retelling of the story incorporates the orphanage children into the fabric of the tale as well.

Director Weible has selected a terrific and diverse cast of professional and amateur, seasoned and nearly neophyte actors, who enrich this production with their exquisite voices, and vibrant heartfelt performances. With 22 performers, each a jewel in this crowning achievement, there are far too many to give each his or her due, so I will have to limit my comments to a few key performers. First of all, Joanna Gleason (Tony Award winner from the Broadway production) participates in this production only as the menacing voice of the Giant (from the Jack and the Beanstalk tale) who ultimately threatens all the characters’ lives. Steve Rhyne and Jessica Fisher are absolutely terrific as the Baker and his wife. Tracy Chiappone is outstanding as the Wicked Witch, as is Molly Kruse as Cinderella, both blessed with exquisite singing voices. Alex Rodriguez plays two roles exceedingly well, the wolf and Rapunzel’s Prince. Melody Perera is a precocious little Red Riding Hood. Jessica Knudsen is very good as Rapunzel and Jeanine Louise Perasso is memorable as Jack’s frustrated mother. Jack (Jack and the Bean Stalk) is played well by Tony Conaty. The Evil Stepmother (Chris Macomber) and her outrageous daughters (played by Marisa Borowitz and Ji Kim) light up the stage with their self-serving machinations. I have to give special kudo’s to Joel Roster (the narrator), who stepped in at the last minute, to play the Mysterious Man in the second act and who also covered very well what appeared to be a couple of other actor’s missed cues. The Mysterious Man, was played very well by Jack DeRieux until he met with an accident on stage. A large wardrobe cabinet, through which he is supposed to emerge onto the stage, collapsed trapping him inside, until he could be extracted and assisted off stage. Fortunately, Jack was not seriously injured, even though he was taken to the hospital for x-rays and an examination.

Artistic Director Daren Carollo came on stage just before the opening of the second act and apologized to the audience for the accident and distraction in the first act and informed us that Jack was not able to continue in this performance but that they felt he would be ok to return to the show later in the run. This is an extremely complicated production with a very beautiful, albeit complicated and unique set (designed by Mark Mendelson) that presented several challenges to the actors during the opening performance. While it was a tough evening for the company, the actors and crew more than rose to the occasion and the evening ended on a high note, certainly an opening we will all remember as one in which the company went “Into the Woods” and emerged alive and for the most part, well, generating lots of praise afterward by the majority of the audience. This new vision for telling the tale of “Into the Woods” is a brilliant concept and while I will always enjoy the original version, this one provides a delightfully new way to enjoy the great music, songs and story created by Sondheim and Lapine. Cheryl Yee Glass once again does a sterling job directing the orchestra which is somehow artfully hidden somewhere behind the enormous set!

I think you will love this newly envisioned version of “Into the Woods” and it continues Thursdays, Fridays, Saturday at 8 p.m., with a special family matinee on Saturday, June 12th at 10 a.m., with regular matinees at 2 p.m., on Saturdays and Sundays, closing on June 20th. Tickets can be reserved by phone by calling (925) 943-7469 or purchased online at www.lesherartscenter.org . Tickets generally range in cost between $29 and $42 each, but for the special family matinee on June 12th they are only $10 for children and $20 for adults. For more information, visit www.diablotheatre.org .

Now, on to the dramatic mystery which opened this past week at the Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette, “Proof”.

The Town Hall Theater has been on a thrilling ride this past year as one production after another has brought resounding accolades for its diverse and professional level of productions. This outstanding play, “Proof”, which opened on Broadway in 2000, was written by David Auburn and has won a number of awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, a Tony Award and a New York Critic’s Circle Award for Best play. In addition, it was made into a movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Anthony Hopkins as daughter Catherine and father Robert, in 2005. Paltrow was subsequently nominated for a Golden Globe Award for her portrayal in that movie production.

This production is team directed by Marybeth Cavanaugh and Lisa Anne Porter. Lisa Anne Porter said in a recent interview, “We are really excited to jump into this play about fathers and daughters and sisters, madness and genius, love and loss. - -“ The story evolves following the death of a mathematical genius, Robert (played by Clive Worsley), as two sisters, Catherine (Siobhan Doherty) and Claire (Alexandra Creighton) meet in preparation for the funeral and tribute to their father.

Catherine had been taking care of her father, a brilliant mathematician, who has been suffering for years from bouts of madness and frustration, with sporadic lucid moments of recovery while in residency near the University of Chicago, where he was engaged as a professor and had taught higher mathematics. While the story appears to be about her father’s quest to solve a mathematical proof about prime numbers, I believe it is more about the frailty of life, of love, and family dynamics, than it is about the validity of or existence of a specific “proof”.

Catherine has inherited much of her father’s innate skill and affinity for higher mathematics and it has generated grave concerns for her personally over her own mental health and whether or not, she might have also inherited his propensity for mental instability. She has moved back home and stuck with her father in order to care for him during his periods of illness, to keep him from being placed in an institution, to inhance his chances for recovery. Following her father’s death, she is abruptly forced to deal with the reality that her sister, who now lives in New York, is planning to immediately sell their father’s home to pay off loans secured to pay for his support during his lengthy illness. While Claire invites Catherine to come to New York to live, it is more an ultimatum than an invitation.

Upon Robert’s death, a former ex-graduate student, Hal (Harold Pierce), has been visiting Robert’s house and with Catherine’s permission, has been perusing Robert’s myriad of note books, searching to determine if Robert had produced any new work of any significant value during his brief periods of lucidity. During that process, he does discover what he believes could be a major new “proof” about “prime numbers”, a new concept that could once again set the mathematical world on its ear! This is where the mystery comes in as we discover that the author may have been another member of the professor’s family, and not the noted professor himself.

Catherine and Hal have recently discovered each other romantically and this new discovery and the way Hal handles it, may destroy their relationship, and Catherine’s relationship with her sister. Stay tuned - - go and see the show, as from here on the story gets very intense and exciting. “Proof” also surprises us with its moments of tenderness and carefully paced caring and warmth.

There are only four actors in his production and it can get very intense. The performances are absolutely superb! Clive Worsley (as Robert) is brilliant in his portrayal of madness intertwined with sanity. This production packed the theater leaving standing room only. After the applause finally died out, I overheard several people as they were filing out of the theatre, who said they were so excited about Town Hall in general, that they were going down stairs to immediately sign up for the next season’s productions. I agree and I hope they did!

There is some moderately strong language so I would not think of this play as being appropriate for young children, but certainly language that is not distasteful or poorly handled. “Proof” continues Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with matinees at 2 p.m. on both Sundays, the 13th and 20th, with a 7 p.m. performance on Sunday the 27th, and the show closes on Saturday, July 3rd. Ticket prices range between $22.50 and $29.50. Call the Town Hall Box office at (925) 283-1557 for more information or you may purchase tickets online at www.TownHallTheatre.com. The Town Hall Theatre is located at 3535 School Street, at the corner of Moraga Road and School Street in Lafayette. Parking is available on the street near the theater, so come early to avoid a long walk. The theater has new, more comfortable seating. They have wonderful snacks and a broad drink menu in the beautifully re-decorated Green room on the first floor of the theater. The Green Room also functions as a display space for local artists and currently there is a marvelous display of photography for your viewing pleasure while you sit back and enjoy a beverage or snack or two. There is an elevator available for easier access to the second floor theater facility. If you have seen the recently refurbished and repainted Town Hall Theatre, then this is a gem of a theater that you should absolutely not miss, a real treasure!