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Review: Idina Menzel’s World Premiere of “Redwood”

Created by director Tina Landau in collaboration with Broadway legend Menzel, the musical takes root at the La Jolla Playhouse
Nkeki Obi-Melekwe as “Becca” (left) and Idina Menzel as “Jesse” in La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere production of Redwood a theater play in San Diego
Photo Credit: Rich Soublet

Can you ever outrun grief?

La Jolla Playhouse’s newest world premiere musical, Redwood, follows Jesse, a self-proclaimed perfectionist who fills her days and nights with work in the wake of the loss of her son, Spencer. It quickly becomes clear that she and her wife, Mel, have very different means of coping: where Mel needs to process the grief, Jesse veers away from it—and, eventually, into the driver’s seat of a car, fleeing across the country. 

She ultimately lands in the redwood forest of Eureka, California. It is only there, under a canopy of stars and branches which stretch to the sky, that Jesse is finally able to breathe. 

Idina Menzel in La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere production of Redwood with the actress standing in front of a giant redwood tree on stage
Photo Credit: Rich Soublet

Then, she meets scholars and scientists Finn and Becca, adventurers seeking answers in the treetops of the giants. Jesse decides that maybe she, too, needs to shed the tethers of pain that hold her back and reach for the sky.

Playwright and director Tina Landau conceived of Redwood in collaboration with star Idina Menzel. Landau also contributed lyrics to music by Kate Diaz. The production features a small but mighty cast of Broadway veterans: Menzel as Jesse, De’Adre Aziza as Mel, Nkeki Obi-Melekwe as Becca, Michael Park as Finn, and Zachary Noah Piser as Spencer (and others). Their experience and skill are undeniable as they navigate the new material, integrate choreographic elements into their ascension to the treetops, and nail the show’s tight harmonies.

Zachary Noah Piser as “Spencer” and Idina Menzel as “Jesse” in La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere production of Redwood in San Diego
Photo Credit: Rich Soublet

In many ways, the talent onstage is a boon for a show that feels unfinished. While the plot elements are relevant and current, tackling both mental health crises and a fentanyl overdose, the examination of each character’s backstory is emotionally taxing and, if anything, detracts from the primary plot line. References made to Finn’s family, for example, go nowhere. And, though we hope Jesse can find peace in the face of loss, the character’s monologic suicidal ideation and ongoing inconsideration for others make it difficult to connect emotionally with her journey.

Furthermore, while the songs are lovely and well-performed, they are also stagnant, rarely advancing the plot or connecting us with the characters, with the exception of a handful of numbers: “The Place” (the production’s opening tune), “Becca’s Song,” “No Repair,” and “Still.”

Michael Park as “Finn” and Idina Menzel as “Jesse” in La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere production of Redwood in San Diego
Photo Credit: Rich Soublet

However, Redwood is visually stunning and immersive. A blank canvas space is brought to life by projections and animations under the creative eye of media designer Hana S. Kim, paired with a floor-to-ceiling redwood on which the characters climb and dance. Stretching around the perimeter of the theater, the projected forest is lush, vibrant, intoxicating, and, ultimately, when paired with the polished vocals of the show’s performers, reason enough to attend.

It will be interesting to see how this show grows and develops over its run and in the years to come. My advice? Enjoy Redwood as a concert. Look beyond its inexplicably sentient inanimate objects, stacked traumas, and lengthiness. Soak in the setting and the songs. I’d wager that in there you’ll see the seeds of something that, like the redwoods, stands to root someday.

Redwood runs at La Jolla Playhouse’s Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre through March 31.

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