Redwood: World Premiere Musical at La Jolla Playhouse

Robust Hymns to the Silence and Then Some

In a world premiere performance, Idina Menzel commands the stage with four other superb actors in the bracing new musical Redwood. Menzel has already proven her command of the musical form on Broadway, starting with her debut in Rent followed by her knockout performance in Wicked and global success in Disney’s animated blockbuster Frozen.

Here she plays the lead Jesse, who escapes her frenzied city job on the East Coast for spiritual renewal on the West Coast after a tragic incident. The nature of the incident is disclosed slowly, initially via a rift with her wife Mel (played marvelously by De’Adre Aziza).

After driving about as far as she can, Jesse somewhat blindly ends up in the eponymous forest. The trees begin to humble Jesse, especially when two forestry workers confront her. Jesse begins to unwrap the source of her grief to these two experts in the field. Finn is the boss and Michael Park’s robust demeanor and voice are authoritative. His partner in work is more taciturn by nature, but Nkeki Obi-Melekwe delivers admirably, adding another wonderful musical voice to the ensemble.

Jesse has a dawning awareness of the stunning presence of the redwood trees. As we enter the theater, we are unprepared for the transition of the stark set into a nearly all-encompassing visual environment. I was frankly put in mind of what I had seen when U2 opened Sphere in Las Vegas; both delivered a pleasant temporary and exhilarating sense of vertigo. The Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre at La Jolla Playhouse is improbably yet successfully transformed into a forest primeval; extreme kudos to scenic/sonic design work was by Hana S. Kim (Projection Designer), Jason Ardizzone-West (Scenic Designer) and Jonathan Deans (Sound Designer). The forest is mostly here where the characters interact, with the greatest arc of change shown by Jesse.

Yet each character is changed in their own way. Again, the vocal prowess of each actor is amazing. Menzel apparently contributed much more than her lead role on stage, she assisted in the initial concept of the production. Tina Landau directs brilliantly from her book and lyrics. The music by Katie Diaz is dynamic and compelling, she also co-wrote the lyrics.

The opening number “The Place” is incredibly forceful, and the biggest surprise of the evening comes towards the end when Zachary Noah Piser delivers the showstopping song “Still.” There were audible gasps.

Run don’t walk to your nearest Internet browser to get tickets before this production sells out, and inevitably and justifiably lands on Broadway.


Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.