Review: REDWOOD at La Jolla Playhouse

Idina Menzel shines in world premiere musical

By: Mar. 06, 2024
Review: REDWOOD at La Jolla Playhouse
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Amidst the caskfuls of (figurative) ink written about Broadway stalwart Idina Menzel over her prolific stage career (and I'm about to spill more),  someone out there must have characterized the actress – and those wonderful pipes of hers – as mightier than an oak.

Well in REDWOOD, a new musical by Kate Diaz, and Tina Landau partially conceived by Menzel and enjoying a visually arresting if somewhat simplistic world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, the actress confronts something even more formidable than encroaching cyber cafes, enraged Oz-ians or life-altering roads not taken….

Trees. Big, ginormous trees. Giant, ancient monarchs which can withstand everything from fires to human interference to centuries of invasive critters. We’re talkin’ the redwoods of Northern California and, in particular, a single giant named Stella who stands, quite literally, at the play’s center, often with Menzel’s character – playing a distraught New Yorker named Jesse – up in its branches.

No, REDWOOD is not strictly Menzel vs. the trees although given the play’s rather thin story, its headliner and technical artistry could conceivably be competing for attention.  This does not happen. The other four members of Landau’s cast – a couple of them quite strong singers in their own right – balance Menzel and help aid the progression of Jesse’s quest. And when it comes time for the forest to, er,  take the stage, the technical team of scenic designer Jason Ardizzone-West, media designer Hana S. Kim, lighting designer Scott Zielinski and sound designer Jonathan Deans unleash their video magic and elicit some serious “oohs.”

The necessities are there. So if REDWOOD proves to be less than the sum of its leafy parts, that’s probably more bookwriter and director Landau’s fault than anybody else’s. Still, it’s easy enough to hop aboard this predictable, eco-conscious train and enjoy the journey even when you can sense exactly where it’s headed: home, and to a measure of inner peace.

Our action begins in New York where Menzel’s workaholic Jesse has exactly one scene with her wife Mel (played by De Andre Aziza) before saying “I can’t do this,” jumping in her car and pointing it west. Still distraught over the death of her 23-year-old son, Spencer, a year earlier, Jesse is in search of some kind of psychological sanctuary. Hence, she disappears, leaving a panicked and highly pissed Mel behind, and resurfacing in Humboldt County among the giants. There she encounters a pair of forest specialists who are working in and with the trees. Wanting in on this action, Jesse quickly wins over kindly Finn (Michael Park). Becca (Nkeki Obi-Malekwe) is less receptive, particularly since Jesse very quickly decides she wants to harness up, plant her feet on the bark and head skyward. Becca considers Jesse an interloper, until she doesn’t.

Finn and Becca have baggage of their own, but Jesse is staunchly of the belief that when faced with a crisis, you don’t go through or around it, but up, up, up and over it, maybe even pausing thousands of feet above the earth to admire the view.

Diaz’s score is comprised of several rousing and beat-friendly numbers, many of them solos along with the occasional power ballad. For “Climb,” Menzel, Park and Obi-Malekwe engage in some Cirque du Soleil-ish rappelling and ascending nicely realized by Melecio Estrella and Bandaloop.

As the play develops and Jesse breaks away from any real need to hang with humans, we get scenes in which our hero communes with, yup, Stella, an enormous structure surrounded and greatly enhanced by Kim’s video design that suggests those nature-suffused IMAX films that play at science centers. Jesse first decides she wants to climb Stella. Then she wants to plant herself on one of the high platforms in Stella’s branches and just stay there indefinitely, taking in the world from up high.

Landau tries to flesh out what could very easily have been Jesse-in-the-forest show. She is aided in this endeavor most notably by Obi-Malekwe whose steely Becca is the earthy counterpoint to Jesse’s psychological brokenness. Aziza has a magnificent voice put ferociously on display with the number “Back Then.” Apart from this, Mel has little to do except chastise Jesse for her selfishness and then disappear from the play. Zachary Noah Peyser is effective as Spencer and the other young men Becca encounters on her trip who remind her of Spencer.

Then, of course, there is the lady of the forest, AKA REDWOOD’s price of admission.

Some 28 years ago, Idina Menzel burst upon the scene in the role of RENT’s Maureen Johnson, a self-absorbed performance artist who shattered hearts belonging to men and women alike. The role of Wicked Witch Elphaba – for which she won a Tony – put her in green makeup with magical powers including levitation, and a conscience. As anyone who saw that performance can attest, the lady was powerful, scary and astonishing.

Now in her fourth decade of treading the boards, and playing an ordinary person, she easily inhabits this grieving, slightly nerdy New York mom. She can be an everyperson until the second the music kicks in and that million-watt baritone rings out, and – trees or no trees – we are transported. As the animated voice of badass princess Alsa of FROZEN, Menzel sang the lyric “Let the storm rage on/the cold never bothered me anyway.” In REDWOOD, Jesse sings “Let the Fires Come.”

Whatever the tale, the lady is a force of nature.

REDWOOD plays through March 31 at 2910 La Jolla Village Dr., La Jolla. 

Photo of Idina Menzel by Rich Soublet,


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