La Jolla Playhouse Presents the World Premiere Musical and Broadway Bound "Redwood" Starring Idina Menzel

 A Visually Stunning Production with a Story that Needs to Catch Up.

A Blog View by Alejandra Enciso-Dardashti

Zachary Noah Piser as “Spencer” and Idina Menzel as “Jesse” in La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere production of REDWOOD; photo by Rich Soublet.

Idina Menzel is not only making her La Jolla Playhouse debut with this world-premiere, but she is also part of the creative team along with Tina Landau who wrote the book and is directing the piece with music, orchestrations and arrangements by Kate Diaz and lyrics by Diaz and Landau. Music Supervision by Kimberly Grigsby and Musical Direction by Haley Bennett.

Menzel plays “Jesse,” who works in interior design and is married to Mel (De’Adre Aziza). When the year mark of their son Spencer's death (Zachary Noah Piser) is coming up, Jesse who has never been the same since, consumed by grief leaves all of a sudden and drives to New York, but keeps going nonstop until she reaches California. Still in a daze, she walks to a forest and falls asleep under a redwood tree. In the morning, redwood researchers Becca (Nkeki ObiMelekwe) and Finn (Michael Park) find Jesse and tell her she cannot be there. She asks if she can stay and even though Becca is firm, Finn is not and lets her stay. As the days pass, Jesse communicates minimally with her wife, gets to climb a redwood, and even camps up there where she wants to stay and names the tree "Stella". There is a fire and Jesse has a "come to Jesus" moment which prompts a decision. 

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.

The production is visually stunning. All the design elements are placed perfectly and I consider this piece to be part of the new era of theatre with impressive media design by Hana S. Kim that includes moving projections a la IMAX that immerse the audience in the scenery. Granted, it is not a round full 360 projection but the feeling is pretty close. The combination of the all-white panels with the large-scale screens to manage the projections along with Jason Ardizzone-West's clean and minimal, contemporary art-esque scenic design also including a white desk and bed that appear and disappear with elevators, was a perfect fit dressed with Scott Zielinski's lighting design consisting of bold blues and green's that accentuated the scenes giving a gorgeous aesthetic. Jonathan Deans's sound design complements this aesthetic with crisp, clear waves that pack a punch to the stimulating experience. 

Another stunning element is the large tree trunk in the middle of the stage where the actors really climb and move around thanks to Melecio Estrella, BANDALOOP: Vertical Movement and Staging. The actors have the straps, the harness, the whole gear, and really do a rappel-type climb up and down towards the catwalk. Toni-Leslie James's costume design goes with everyday outfits like jeans and loafers for the Jesse character as well as her wife, and son, and with the sporty, climber gear for Becca and Finn.

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.

I've had the opportunity to see Idina on stage before in If/Then and Skintight (as I am a big Joshua Harmon fan). As always, her performance was good. The intention was there and her voice sounded good too. The songs I felt are not yet landed, they need more work meshing the lyrics with the music, and some of them, I caught similarities with other songs Idina has sung in previous roles like the high note at the end of "Defying Gravity" from Wicked and the crescendo of "Let it Go" from Frozen. Is that a bad thing? not necessarily. The songs within the production I feel the most rounded are: "Great Escape" carrying a good melody, sung by Idina, and "Still", a powerful and beautiful song that was performed superbly by Zachary Noah Piser who is very charming on stage. 

-Sidenote: San Diego local actor and Craig Noel Award winner, Giovanny Diaz de Leon, is the understudy for Spencer, and I would love to see his rendition of this song...- 

Michael Park as “Finn” and Idina Menzel as “Jesse” in La Jolla Playhouse’s
world-premiere production of REDWOOD; photo by Rich Soublet.

Moving on, the story, sadly, lacks balance and character development. We do not see who Mel really is, or how she carries her life. A grounding or resonating component is lacking. I wanted to see more of De’Adre Aziza's work but the story does not give the role much space for that. In the case of Becca and Finn, Finn left the corporate world and is now doing his thing with the trees, and Becca, an African American woman, highly qualified and prepared, fighting against the white patriarchy which she sings about, then gets shut down bluntly by her white boss, so it is contradicting. Nikeki Obi-Melekwe is great and her vocals are strong. There is a part with cool harmonies between Nikeki and Idina that works well. Michael Park delivers a passionate performance as Finn and his physicality climbing up and down is impressive as well as Nikeki's who even goes upside down mid-climb. 

This piece is about Jesse's grief yet, more development on the characters, especially Mel, would balance it out. All in all, this is an innovative piece with potential. The story needs to catch up with the design.

Redwood is sold out for its run playing until March 30th. But you never know. I would recommend calling the box office (858.550.1010) day of show, or the beginning of each week to get more information on the possibilities if any :).

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