Theater Review: REDWOOD (La Jolla Playhouse World Premiere Starring Idina Menzel)

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by Tony Frankel on March 5, 2024

in Theater-Regional,Theater-San Diego


As one who has hiked many times deep in the ancient Redwood groves, those which have been relatively untouched for thousands of year, and it truly does steal your heart. And with names such as “Cathedral Grove Trail,” Redwoods are spiritual. There’s magic in them because they are hearty and damn near everlasting.

The musical Redwood, which opened this week at La Jolla Playhouse, is none of these things. Oh there are moments of pathos that truly stirred me, and the performers are wonderful, and, boy, is its heart ever in the right place. Even as our urban heroine scales a giant redwood for the first time, the show just doesn’t rise above its material. The creators all have cred, but there is one reason Redwood sold out before it opened.

Idina Menzel

The big draw here is star and co-writer by Idina Menzel — and with good reason: the “Let It Go” and Wicked singer is a splendid actress. She conceived the project with director and bookwriter Tina Landau, and is credited with “additional contributions.” The music is by Kate Diaz, with lyrics by Diaz and Landau.

The story begins with Jesse (Menzel), a woman stuck in both work and the internet, as we all are, but for her it’s an escape from a tragedy the year before: The accidental death of her twenty-three-old son. So, the woman up and leaves her wife of twenty years (De’Adre Aziza as Mel), and just starts to drive, ending up in a Eureka redwood grove that’s privately owned. She’s rightfully entranced and meets two botanists who are studying climate change and its effect on canopies, which are — we are told Wikipedia-style — over 30 stories from the ground on a branch that is as big as any other tree in the country.

Nkeki Obi-Melekwe and Idina Menzel

With Jason Ardizzone-West‘s exquisite large redwood trunk on a turntable, Hana S. Kim‘s gigantic cyclorama media projections, and Jonathan Deans‘ surround sound (Haley Bennett and her four-piece band are live but they sound pre-recorded) — this chamber musical is as heartfelt as they come. Anything that celebrates the majesty and the healing power of Redwoods is welcome. But you know what would be even more welcome for a musical? Songs. I don’t know what you call these tunes, which has everyone in the cast yodeling Menzel-style, but it’s the puerile, on-the-nose, unintelligent, imperfect rhyming lyrics that can take a hike. Woefully short on chords, the songs — with music that isn’t mystical or spiritual but pop with one rapping number — don’t heighten the emotion of the moment; they are more like dialogue to music. And, boy, can they be pat. What a waste of singing talent. And yet, when Nkeki Obi-Melekwe as tough-Black-botanist Becca echoed her pipes all over the forest in, well, “Becca’s Song”, it was thrilling. Now, if only I had the tiniest inkling of what the heck she was singing about besides getting things done.

Michael Park and Idina Menzel

Yeah, the songs are pat, but so are the characters, so it’s consistent. It’s a great concept to have one actor play many different variations of Jesse’s boy Spencer (adorbs Zachary Noah Piser), who she sees in every twenty-something on her journey, including the son of woodsy botanist Finn (an earnest, gung-ho Michael Park). But because her son’s death is revealed very late in the show, we have assumed that she is just selfish, abandoning her wife that way and vamoosing because life got tough.

Idina Menzel and De’Adre Aziza

It’s strange that with a show about opening up, Landau‘s direction never really follows suit. Sure, cinematic wonders in the theater are cool as a set design, but not when there’s a reliance on the splendid computer-graphic multimedia to give us a sense of time and place and heighten our experience. That should foremost be a song’s job — in a musical at least. But multimedia is what Back to the Future and other shows are doing now. From highways to the treetops and Scott Zielinski‘s gobo-rich sunrise-to-sunset lighting, it really is a visual treat.

Zachary Noah Piser and Idina Menzel

But the set? Aside from a desk that disappears into the floor at the top of the show and that gorgeous floor-to-fly-space redwood, there’s no set to speak of. That you don’t start in a scrunched area in the workplace and then end up in the expansive grove is yet another missed opportunity that this show is rife with. There’s some good dialogue, but — you guessed it — it’s also pat (“We’re all a little bit wild”). The pontification and pining about the life of redwoods serves no other purpose but to enlighten, which is definitely an urgent necessity, at the expense of character development.

Still, I found myself getting a wee bit emotional about the self-healing properties the trees have, and “if they can be so resilient, why can’t we?” And when Jesse is told to listen to the silence of the forest, that touched me, mostly because I know most people won’t experience it. That silence really is amazing. I got that from this show. But how great would it have been if she wailed a song and then suddenly stopped, exhausted, and that’s when she hears the silence.

The evening isn’t a wash. And the 120 minutes without intermission wasn’t making me too ancy. It just didn’t take off. That this little seedling of a show could one day be a redwood doesn’t look possible at this point.

photos by Rich Soublet Photography

La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego
2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla
ends on March 31, 2024
for tickets, call ­858.550.1010 or visit La Jolla Playhouse

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