Emotional Power of “Redwood’ Grows at the La Jolla Playhouse

Idina Menzel (photos courtesy of Rich Soublet II).

Idina Menzel (photos courtesy of Rich Soublet II).

Idina Menzel has such a distinct and powerful voice that it can be easy to forget that she is also an accomplished actor. Her acting, singing, and even climbing chops are on full display in the La Jolla Playhouse’s moving world premiere of the musical, Redwood.

Following a life-changing tragedy, a successful event planner, Jesse (Menzel), begins to feel detached from her personal and professional life. On a whim, she decides to leave her job and wife, Mel (De’Adre Aziza), to find herself. Jesse drives to the redwoods of Eureka, California, and meets a friendly and unorthodox botanist, Finn (Michael Park), and a levelheaded and practical fellow scientist, Becca (Nkeki Obi-Melekwe).

As Jesse gets to know more about the history of the Redwoods, she starts to connect with nature and her new acquaintances, and gradually begins to talk about her past.

Tina Landau’s book has a good first half, but it is also when the show feels the most like a new piece of work that could benefit from some tinkering. While there is plenty of witty dialogue and well-done character writing, the problems that Jesse is going through abruptly clashes with her adventure. This is felt the most during some intentional repeated lines triggering Jesse’s inner pain and a dream sequence featuring a rendition of Beyoncé’s single, “Deja Vu,” that seems out of place compared to the rest of the show.

Regardless, the theme of respecting nature is explored well and does not get in the way of character growth.

The second half is superior and it is a lot tighter and focused as the audience finds out Jesse’s reasons for leaving home. The more she opens up, the more theatregoers connect with the character, even though Landau’s dialogue does not sugarcoat Jesse’s seemingly self-centered and selfish attitude.

Each song composed by Kate Diaz (she provides recorded vocals for a few musical numbers) with lyrics by her and Landau highlight the vocals of Menzel, Aziza, Obi-Melekwe, Park, and Zachary Noah Piser, who plays several young men Jesse encounters.

Not only do the tunes provide strong showcases for the ensemble, a few melodies including “The Trees” and “The Ascent” are written in an almost cinematic style, which is perfectly captured by the orchestra led by conductor/keyboardist, Haley Bennett.

Director, Landau, creates an epic tone, particularly with how she utilizes Jonathan Deans’ goosebump-inducing audio, Scott Zielinksi’s visually rich lighting, and immersive media design from Hana S. Kim.

Nkeki Obi-Melekwe and Idina Menzel.

Nkeki Obi-Melekwe and Idina Menzel.

A word of warning that the projections might take a few minutes to get used to as Jesse explores nature, and it could take a little bit of time for some audience members to be fully immersed by Kim’s incredible, and occasionally overwhelming, video imagery.

Landu gets a multilayered star turn from Menzel (who partially conceived the tale with Landau and added additional contributions) as Jesse. Menzel is believable depicting the lost soul’s proactive, sometimes guarded, and occasionally goofy personality.

Obi-Melekwe and Park depict a professional yin-and-yang relationship with Becca’s skepticism and pragmatic opinions balancing out Finn’s young at heart and laid-back attitude. Both co-stars are on-par with Menzel’s work and give vocally and physically demanding performances (the vertical movement and staging is from Melecio Estrella and BANDALOOP), especially during climbing sequences on Jason Ardizzone-West’s set. Aziza, Piser, and Menzel seamlessly work together in the most heartfelt sections of the tale.

As the production reached its conclusion, many people, including myself, were tearing up in an emotionally healing climax and resolution. The final 15-minutes or so end the narrative in a way that is deeply satisfying and cathartic.

Redwood uses humor, nature, and pathos to explore tough subject matter that will resonate with theatregoers. Menzel is in top form throughout the bittersweet and memorable evening.

View the program online.

[box] Show times are Tuesdays at 7:30 pm, Wednesdays at 7:30 pm, Thursdays at 8:00 pm, Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 2:00 pm and 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 2:00 pm and 7:00 pm. [/box]

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Photo of La Jolla Playhouse
La Jolla Playhouse
2910 La Jolla Village Drive La Jolla CA 92037 USA Work Phone: 858.550.1010 Website: La Jolla Playhouse website
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