The cast of Into the Woods had some homework to do.
Director Eric Davis assigned the 12 actors in Freefall Theatre's season opener some reading, specifically The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales by Bruno Bettelheim.
It was apropos. The controversial child psychologist looked at fairy tales through a Freudian lens, believing even the most grotesque tales were vital for kids to grow.
"People thought, that's not appropriate for children if they're chopping bits of their foot off to get what they want, or it's not pleasant if the prince falls from the tower and gouges his eyes out. ..." said Davis, artistic director of the St. Petersburg theater. "If we deprive children of these stories, they're deprived of one of the main ways in which children understand the world."
Not exactly Disney princess stuff. Then again, neither is Into the Woods.
On the surface, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's 1987 Tony Award-winning musical is about intertwining fairy tales. But it's really about making choices and living with the consequences.
It asks, is getting what you want always best?
Cinderella wants to go to the King's festival. Jack wants his cow to give milk. The Baker and his Wife want a child. Little Red Riding Hood wants to get to her grandma's house. Two handsome and vapid princes want the affections of Cinderella and Rapunzel.
The songs are sweeping and deliciously melodic, but if you really listen they're subversive to the hilt, sometimes harkening to sex and darkly wry humor.
The Wolf: "Look at that flesh, pink and plump. Hello, little girl."
Little Red Riding Hood: "Once his teeth were bared, well, I really got scared. Well ... excited and scared.
Rapunzel's Prince: "Agony, far more painful than yours. When you know she would go with you, if there only were doors."
"When you're inside of a Sondheim musical, it's just amazing because you really see your mind working as a whole brain," said Ann Morrison, who plays the Witch. "You have your left brain with the lyrics and the words, and you have your right brain engaged because it's music, and you have movement, and crossed together it's just an amazing experience. It becomes an extremely profound journey."
Morrison knows the Sondheim experience well. The 58-year-old stage veteran lives in Sarasota but originated the role of Mary Flynn in Sondheim and George Furth's 1981 Broadway musicalMerrily We Roll Along.
It was while performing a New York cabaret of Bernstein and Sondheim in January that she remembered her love for Into the Woods,which both her ex-husband and son had starred in. She mentioned it to Davis, and it got things going.
It's a buzzy time, too, for Into the Woods. Disney - yes, Disney - is producing a live action movie due in December starring Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp and Anna Kendrick. Movie gossip abounds, whether or not it will hold true to Sondheim's lyrics or glaze over the more controversial bits.
"I think it's fun for the audience to see the original piece much like it's more fun to read the book before the movie," Davis said. "The form of film is so much faster and abridged."
Into the Woods is typically a big-budget performance done with large props, everything from a moving cow to an actual beanstalk giant. That kind of thing is difficult in Freefall's intimate venue.
"He has a challenge," Morrison said of her director. "This is a very small space for a very large show. He's figured out how to tell the story. That's what Eric's about. Let's get the story. That's why I love coming to Freefall."
Davis will ask the audience to use their heads.
"People forget that their imagination is often more powerful than a state-of-the-art theatrical effect," he said. "It's a fun return to that sort of storytelling. It's a very lavish, beautiful production but it very much relies on the audience's ability to imagine things."
As for kids, he thinks most dark stuff should go over their heads. And who knows? They might come away with some of those lessons Bettelheim talked about. It's right there in Sondheim's lyrics.
The Witch: "Careful the things you say. Children will listen. Careful the things you do. Children will see, and learn."
Contact Stephanie Hayes at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716. Follow @stephhayes.
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IF YOU GO
Into the Woods
Opens Saturday and runs through Nov. 9 at Freefall Theatre, 6099 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. Shows are at 7 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. $21-$48. (727) 498-5205. freefalltheatre.com.
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Into the Woods stars Ann Morrison as the Witch, T. Robert Pigott as the Baker, Lee Anne Mathews as the Baker's Wife, Matthew McGee as the Narrator. Also starring Katie Berger, Kelly Pekar, Nick Lerew, Griffeth Whitehurst, Donna DeLonay, Taylor Simmons, Joanna Lauren Mandel and Susan Haldeman.