Review: REDWOOD Looks to Turn Tragedy Into Transformation at La Jolla Playhouse

Playing through March 31st

By: Feb. 26, 2024
Review: REDWOOD Looks to Turn Tragedy Into Transformation at La Jolla Playhouse
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REDWOOD, the world premiere musical now playing at the La Jolla Playhouse offers soaring visuals and vocals in a story that tackles how to turn tragedy into transformation.

The show opens with workaholic Jesse (Idina Menzel), on the phone with her boss and scoffing at a client's preference for the color green for everything.  Jesse is struggling to process a family tragedy, and her way of coping is avoidance and burying herself in work. Her wife Mel (De’Adre Aziza), has a different process of grieving and Jesse can’t handle it, so she gets in the car to find some space. It is supposed to be a quick trip out of NYC, but every time she stops and sees a young man (all played by Zachary Noah Piser) she has to depart and keep moving.  Days later finds herself in California and falls asleep under a redwood tree.

Review: REDWOOD Looks to Turn Tragedy Into Transformation at La Jolla Playhouse
De’Adre Aziza (right) as “Mel” and Idina Menzel as “Jesse” in La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere production of REDWOOD; photo by Rich Soublet.

Jesse is found by Finn (Michael Park), and Becca (Nkeki Obi-Melekwe) who are studying the redwood tree in a study to benefit overall redwood health and preservation. They ask her to leave, but Jesse asks to stay to see what they are doing.  Becca who is all business, does not want Jesse there as she is a safety risk and trespassing on private property, but Finn, a botanist and former professor, thinks this learning opportunity will be good for Jesse.

Jesse soon becomes fascinated by the trees and the distance she has found from her real life. Her wife is concerned, and Becca worries she might have a death wish, but Jesse decides this is exactly what she needs. She soon convinces Finn to allow her to climb into the tree and up to the viewing platform that is around 180 feet in the air. 

Review: REDWOOD Looks to Turn Tragedy Into Transformation at La Jolla Playhouse
Michael Park as “Finn” and Idina Menzel as “Jesse” in La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere production of REDWOOD; photo by Rich Soublet

Visually, this show is stunning, and while the initial set when entering may look unassuming, once Jesse reaches the redwoods it comes alive in colors and textures. The work by media designer Hana S. Kim creates a fully immersive and breathtaking audience experience.

There is also a lot of impressive climbing and choreography by Malecio Estrella and his company Bandaloop, which specializes in site-specific vertical performances.

Combined, the climbing and the visuals give an amazing sense of height and lift and the astonishing view that comes the closer you get to a canopy of one of these magnificent trees. There is a definite sense of movement experienced through this, so if you are prone to motion sickness there may be moments that feel intense.  

Review: REDWOOD Looks to Turn Tragedy Into Transformation at La Jolla Playhouse
Nkeki Obi-Melekwe as “Becca” (left) and Idina Menzel as “Jesse” in La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere production of REDWOOD; photo by Rich Soublet.

Directed by Tina Landau who also wrote the book and lyrics, with music by Kate Diaz, and additional contributions and lead performance by Idina Menzel, this show is mostly sung-through, with short, interspersed spoken scenes as connective tissue to the next song.  

It should be no surprise with the powerhouse cast that the vocals are all excellent. One standout number is “Little Redwood” by Obi-Melekwe as Becca instructs Jesse and the audience on how extraordinary each tree truly is and what they have lived through.

Menzel brings a frenetic and grieving Jesse to life, talking non-stop, making funny quips to deflect, and trying to get her way in all situations so she has some semblance of control in her life. It must be an emotionally and physically exhausting character to play, but Menzel does it with ease and of course that unmistakable voice. Her songs towards the end of the show are mostly from a suspended platform, but I suppose once you have conquered Oz from the back of a broom belting from high places isn’t much of an obstacle.

As Becca, Obi-Melekwe is fantastic, bringing nuance and common sense as the most grounded character in the show. She knows what she wants, she has lived through tragedy and used it to inform the life she lives, and she has sacrificed to build that life working among these trees. She is not pleased that this stranger could damage the trees or her work while finding herself.

Park as Finn is charming and gives paternal advice like a kindly rockstar of the forestry department.  His song “Roots” highlights his journey rejecting his privileged life in Connecticut to travel the world and study trees.

Review: REDWOOD Looks to Turn Tragedy Into Transformation at La Jolla Playhouse
Zachary Noah Piser as “Spencer” and Idina Menzel as “Jesse” in La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere production of REDWOOD; photo by Rich Soublet.

Piser plays a variety of other male characters, as well as Spencer who is a sweet if directionless young man.  His number “Still” with Menzel is touching and well-sung. Aziza as Mel, Jesse’s wife patient and loving wife, has a great voice but doesn’t get much to do overall.

Redwoods have evolved to not just be fireproof, but scientists have found that their resilience to fire is a transformative event that allows them to continue to thrive and live after tragedy. The story written by Landau and Menzel leans heavily on this transformation through tragedy and the show touches upon family issues, mental health, grief, and people with suicidal ideations. 

Unfortunately, neither those ideas nor the characters truly get developed enough to feel fully rounded or complete.  Becca is the most fully realized character, but even she takes a hard turn at the end, crediting Jesse with a lesson that feels more shoehorned in than actually earned or consistent with the character.

Jesse is grieving, but her process is to not process, and it manifests in such a delusional and selfish way that one has to wonder why these people put up with her. In one scene towards the climax, it is impossible to ignore the fact that her actions could potentially cost the lives of anyone who may be sent to get her if things take a turn for the absolute worse.  This is self-care at its most toxic. 

Finn may be a botany rockstar, but it’s inescapable that this privileged, white man very casually and without a second thought allowed Jesse to get herself into a situation whose ramifications could potentially cost Becca everything she had fought and worked for in her profession - it is truly a villain move.

At the end of the day, this story feels simplistic and muddled at the same time, making it difficult to be truly vested in any of these characters. It is unfortunate because this show has a strong cast, and is technically and visually gorgeous -  the story is just not as nuanced or interesting as it deserves.

How To Get Tickets

REDWOOD is playing at the La Jolla Playhouse through March 31st.  For ticket and showtime information go to www.lajollaplayhouse.org 

Photo Credit: Idina Menzel in La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere production of REDWOOD; photo by Rich Soublet.




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