Daniel Beaty’s original play The Tallest Tree in the Forest at Arena Stage follows controversial performer and activist Paul Robeson, initially renowned for his singing, but later labeled a communist traitor and blacklisted during the McCarthy era.
The Tallest Tree is a bold, stirring undertaking, but the pieces aren’t in place. While Beaty’s idea is admirable and innovative and Moisés Kaufman’s direction is strong, the script falls short and gets stuck in telling instead of showing.
Playwright and performer Daniel Beaty is impressive. Playing over 40 characters with passion and stamina isn’t easy, but it is frustrating to see him resort to melodrama and caricatures.
Beaty’s voice is rich and vibrant albeit strained at times. The second half is vocally stronger than the first. (“Battle of Jericho” is particularly powerful.) The musicians play seamlessly throughout under music director, conductor, and pianist Kenny J. Seymour.
The highlight of the evening is Derek McLane’s set, David Lander’s lighting, John Narun’s projections, and Lindsay Jones’s sound. I mention them in the same breath because I have never seen a vision this cohesive.
Projections take the audience around the world – we stand in the crowd as Robeson speaks, we dance in the jazz age, and we see horrific acts of violence multiplying. Sound effects function as musical language, lights flicker at unexpected but lovely moments, and McLane’s set is versatile and elaborate – a rare combination.
Beaty deserves every standing ovation he’s bound to receive for bringing up this misunderstood and unsung hero. Every artist walks the tightrope, struggling to maintain his or her image and convictions. It’s a balancing act that Robeson refused to play, and ultimately paid the price for. “The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I made my choice.”
The Tallest Tree in the Forest is worth seeing because you haven’t seen anything like it. View it as a work in progress.
The Tallest Tree in the Forest . Written and performed by Daniel Beaty . Directed by Moisés Kaufman .Music Director: Kenny J. Seymour . Set Designer: Derek McLane . Costume Designer: Clint Ramos . Lighting Designer: David Lander . Sound Designer: Lindsay Jones . Projection Designer: John Narun . Stage Manager: Craig Campbell . A World premiere presentation of the Kansas City Repertory Theatre/La Jolla Playhouse production in association with Tectonic Theater Project . Presented by Arena Stage . Reviewed by Rebecca Evans.
Tim Smith . Baltimore Sun
Jordan Wright . Alexandria Times
Rebecca J. Ritzel . City Paper
Keith Loria . TheaterMania
Missy Frederick . Washingtonian
Nelson Pressley . Washington Post
Benjamin Tomchik . BroadwayWorld
Robert Michael Oliver . MDTheatreGuide
Susan Berlin . Talkin’Broadway
Bob Ashby . ShowBizRadio
David Friscic . DCMetroTheaterArts