Theater Review: This Gorgeous “Redwood” Soars but Doesn’t Reach New Heights

Kevin Taft reviews the lovingly crafted but merely pretty good, Redwood, featuring Idina Menzel, and playing at the La Jolla playhouse from Feb 13 - March 31.
User Rating: 7

It’s always a treat to see a new show making its World Premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse, home to many future Broadway hits. And to star a theater legend like Idina Menzel, well, that’s a joy in itself.

The new musical Redwood has a great pedigree. It is written and directed by Tina Landau (The Spongebob Squarepants Musical) and co-conceived with star Menzel. The music is by Kate Diaz, a newcomer to musical theater, who co-wrote the lyrics with Landau. (Menzel is credited with “additional contributions.”) So clearly, this is a passion project for the three women, and a lot of love and care has gone into this beautifully realized production.

However, the story of Redwood is a rather simple tale about tragedy and grief—which might be what prevents it from soaring.

Jesse (Menzel) is a busy workaholic whose wife, Mel (De’Adre Aziza), is frustrated by her absence. Mel is at the end of her rope, with the main issue between them the death of their adult son Spencer (Zachary Noah Piser) and the differences in how the women are dealing with it. While Mel wants to keep his memory close and frequently pours over pictures of him, Jesse wants to ignore it altogether because it’s too painful. This has driven a wedge between the couple, threatening to crumble their bond.

See Also: Theater Review: A Standout Cast Makes for a Tasty “Mystic Pizza”

After a particularly painful fight with Mel, Jesse decides to take off on a spontaneous road trip to clear her mind and contemplate the direction her life is headed. Exhausted and having fallen asleep in a forest in Eureka, two conservationists confront her, the old-hippie Finn (Michael Park) and the no-nonsense Becca (Nkeki Obi-Melekwe).

Jesse is a bit ignorant about all things trees and forests, but wanting to change her outlook, she ingratiates herself with these poor folks because of her need for distraction. Finn sort of gets it and allows her to watch him climb a redwood they are studying, while Becca isn’t so keen on the idea. When Jesse then wants to learn rope climbing, Becca is even more resistant.

Somehow, Jesse warms them over, and her journey of healing begins.

There’s not much about Jesse’s story that we haven’t seen before, so the interest lies in how she handles her journey. With a small cast, a few of the songs stand out (“The Great Escape” and “Still”), but this is a ballad-heavy show with beautiful music but isn’t instantly memorable. (That said, the score alone is gorgeous.)

At one point, the true story of Julia “Butterfly” Hill is referenced. She made national headlines when, at age 23, in an act of civil disobedience, she lived in a tree for two years to protest the clear-cutting of ecologically significant forests. This might have made a better story than one about grief (which seems like a go-to theme these days in movies and shows.) It’s not that grief isn’t a worthwhile topic, but in this world, it didn’t feel as fresh.

What does feel fresh is the staging and scenic design. Opening with blank white modular walls, as soon as Jesse takes off for the woods, projections of forests, roads, and the sky illuminate almost 180 degrees of the theater. The only true set piece (aside from a platform that rises in the center of the stage a few times) is a rotating wall that reveals a portion of the large redwood tree’s trunk. This is the centerpiece of the show, and it is impressive.

In one sequence, Jesse, Becca, and Finn climb to the canopy of the tree, and the dizzying movement of the climb is beautifully dynamic.

Menzel is terrific here. She does not really play anything against type but brings an earnest gravitas that is relatable and grounded. Her voice soars through the theater, pulling us into her journey despite its familiarity.

The rest of the cast is equally effective, with Piser standing out as multiple characters but finally having his big moment when he appears as Jesse’s spectral son.

There is a lot to appreciate in Redwood, and it’s clear it has been lovingly crafted by an expert creative team. With a more compelling story, this might truly ascend, but for now, it has an effective climb but never completely reaches the heights it strives for.

“Redwood” runs through March 31st at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego.
For information and tickets, visit www.LaJollaPlayHouse.org

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Kevin is a long-time movie buff with a wide variety of tastes and fixations in the film world. He cried the moment Benji appeared onscreen in “Benji,” and it took him about four times to finally watch “The Exorcist” (at age 24) without passing out. “Star Wars: A New Hope” was the movie that changed everything and when his obsession with films and filmmaking began. A screenwriter himself (one long-ago horror script sale to New Line remains on a shelf), his first film "Two Tickets to Paradise" that he co-wrote premiered in June 2022 on Hallmark. He is currently working on another for the iconic brand.

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