This is a lovely moment for an actress with the lyrical name of Awa Sal Secka, and if you happen to be in attendance at Ford’s Theatre anytime soon, you’ll be treated to an equally lyrical performance. She plays the Baker’s Wife in the company’s delightful revival of “Into the Woods,” the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical that reveals a panoply of fairy-tale characters having as complicated a set of life issues as patients in an overbooked psychotherapy practice.
Secka, previously seen to memorable effect as one of the powerhouse presences in Round House Theatre’s production of “Caroline, or Change,” brings a supple voice and affecting naturalness to one of the show’s touchstone roles, that of a woman struggling with the real challenges of infertility and fidelity in a land of make-believe. And the pleasure here is that she does — make you believe, that is.
“Into the Woods” is nothing if not about ambiguity and contradiction. To observe actors such as Secka — under director Peter Flynn’s lively instruction — embody the neuroses that are applied to storybook characters is to renew one’s attachment to Sondheim and Lapine’s dandy handiwork. As with other incarnations of the oft-revived 1987 musical, this one does have to contend with a convoluted web of plots, a construct that at times becomes a little too enamored with its own cleverness.
But it is eternally a lot of fun to watch as the characters, some fairy-tale famous, several others newly invented, contend with both magical catastrophes and everyday dilemmas. “Isn’t it nice to know a lot? And a little bit — not!” sings the irrepressible Little Red Riding Hood — animated here by the entertaining dynamo Jade Jones — after the dangerously seductive Wolf has been slaughtered.
The overarching duality of “Into the Woods” exists in the fraught chasm between that thing you wish for and the consequences of getting that thing. For the Baker’s Wife and her husband (embodied in touching fashion by Evan Casey), that wish is for a child, and it is around their wholly resonant quest that the musical revolves. (Think of the seeking of the ingredients for a pregnancy spell as the in-vitro fertilization of the spirit world.) On the other end of the wish spectrum is an ultra-needy Witch (the superb, gimlet-eyed Rachel Zampelli), who is so hellbent on keeping her daughter safe that she imprisons the girl with the luxurious rope of tresses in an unscaleable tower. Rapunzel is her name — how’d you guess? — and Quynh-My Luu imbues her robustly with the singular hope harbored by an overprotected child: escape.
“Into the Woods” is one of the most frequently produced pieces in Sondheim’s canon in part because its iconography is so accessible: Cinderella, sung to lilting perfection by an adorable Erin Driscoll, Prince Charming (a fine-voiced Christopher Mueller, doing his best Jack Black impression), and mischievous Jack of Beanstalk fame (an engaging Samy Nour Younes) all figure in the show’s interlocking subplots. It also wins an audience’s affection for wearing its heart so tenderly on the billowing sleeves of so many bravura characters. And, of course, there are those abundantly witty Sondheim songs, from the hilarious “Agony,” a duet for a pair of princes (Mueller and Hasani Allen) wired for distressed-damsel rescue, to the haunting “No One Is Alone” for a makeshift fairy-tale family that comes together after a giant calamity strikes the kingdom.
Flynn, with the aid of set designer Milagros Ponce de León and costume designer Wade Laboissonniere, activates the joyfully imaginative intersection of “Into the Woods” where fanciful conjoins with baser human impulses — even cruelty. Clint Allen contributes some nifty projections, especially for the gory scene in which the Wolf (Mueller, again) gets his comeuppance, and choreographer Michael Bobbitt allows a cast 20 strong to glide with aplomb through the story’s chance encounters and interconnected mishaps.
A couple of caveats: At the preview performance I attended, Scott Sedar still seemed a bit uncertain about how to navigate his dual responsibilities as Narrator and the Mysterious Man — admittedly, two of the show’s trickiest roles. And the requisite moment of pizazz, in the Witch’s physical transformation, was not yet achieved with the panache that inspires the required audience oohs and ahhs.
These are the sort of stumbling blocks that are attended to as a production gains firmer footing. Far more important are the acts of directorial embroidery that add to enjoyment. And, so, special note must be made of the daffy work of Tiziano D’Affuso as Milky White. More and more these days, the role of Jack’s cow is being assigned, amusingly, to an actor; in the original production, Milky was inanimate. “Into the Woods” experts will also mark that Flynn adds Hasani Allen as a second Wolf in “Hello, Little Girl,” which gives the show an extra dash of symmetry; the wolves are now both embodied by the actors who later play the princes.
You’ll be pleased to know, too, that sound designer David Budries is commendably on the ball, ensuring a crisp aural balance between conductor William Yanesh’s eight-member orchestra and the production’s estimable voices. Not only do they all know how to carry a Sondheim tune, but they also carry us into the woods, and out of the woods, and happily ever — well, happily into the night, anyway.
Into the Woods, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; book by James Lapine. Directed by Peter Flynn. Lighting, Rui Rita. With Rayanne Gonzales, Karen Vincent, Ashleigh King, Maria Egler, Christopher Michael Richardson and Justine “Icy” Moral. About 2 hours 40 minutes. $27-$81. Through May 22 at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW. 888-616-0270. fords.org.