The Review: Broadway’s Jagged Little Pill
Typically, when writing a review I try to find one theme to focus on and around. One pathway or symbolic road map to find meaning and structure in my thoughts, but much like this hyperactive and throughly rocking jukebox musical, I just can’t pick one to run with. So I’m going to power ahead with them all, and I hope somehow it all miraculously comes together as well as American Repertory Theater’s Jagged Little Pill does. The overly issue-ladened musical strives to encompass so much, telling so many tales of importance, and somehow pulls them all off in a way that just about works. It’s not a perfectly constructed piece of full formed art, like the much more fully intentioned Hadestown or The Band’s Visit, but even with its too many important plot lines cascading forward with an Alanis head-pounding enthusiasm, the show somehow magical connects, almost sending me over the edge pretty much all of the second half, although it doesn’t quite manage to nudge me over the edge. I was on the verge of ugly crying, like I did in Dear Evan Hansen, but I didn’t, although I certainly was biting my lip trying it hold it together against the wave after wave of ‘important’ protest-worthy issues of the moment. What does that say? I’m not quite sure. The power is there, but the detours and the quick turns somehow keep us from dropping over the edge into the river of tears. Which is a shame. At least for this theatre junkie.
In the same way that theatre lives powerfully in my heart, I can’t even begin to tell you how much Alanis Morrissette’s 1995 Jagged Little Pill (the album) sits strongly in my conscious mind. In her ‘debut’ album (we won’t talk about the teen pop Canadian albums she did prior to this American debut), she single-handedly encompassed an angst and a feeling of the time. On that force, the album propelled it up the charts and into our collective souls. It is, without a doubt, one of my all time favorites albums from one of my all time favorite singer/songwriting musicians. The powerful collection of tracks became my gateway drug into the rich and dense world of Morrissette’s artistic and creative mind. Her intensity of feeling float through my blood stream with such staying power that when I first went to see this show in Boston at the American Repertory Theater, I was a bit worried that I wouldn’t be able to separate my memories of each and every song sung by her from the ones that I was about to hear performed by others. Luckily, this rock musical doesn’t feel as inauthentic as I was dreading back then. It was and is, in fact, a theatrical gift to all those Morrissette fans who are sitting on the edge of their anticipatory seats, holding their collective breath, hoping to be blown away, just like my plus one the other day when we sat down, ready to take in the spectacularly upgraded and refocused Broadway version now playing at the Broadhurst Theatre.
Jagged Little Pill has all the songs you could imagine; “You Learn“, “Right Through You”, “Hand in My Pocket“, “Mary Jane“, to name just a few (music by Morrissette and Glen Ballard; lyrics by Morrissette; additional music by Michael Farrell & Guy Sigsworth) weaving their way through a grand tale centered on a pseudo-perfect American family in suburban Connecticut at Christmastime. The well-crafted scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez (NYTW’s Red Speedo, Public’s Grounded) has been tightened and improved. Don’t ask me how, but there was more clear intent and a focused vision that was only enhanced magnificently by the floating rock star lighting by Justin Townsend (Broadway’s The Humans). The costumes by Emily Rebholz (Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen, Indecent) seem to have been fine-tuned as well, creating a thoughtful balance between super cool and ‘Alanis Morissette’ intense, all backed seamlessly by the vibrating-ly strong sound design by Jonathan Deans (Broadway’s Finding Neverland), and a much improved video design by Lucy MacKinnon (Broadway’s The Lifespan of a Fact). The lessons were learned and the problems fixed before this show made its way to Broadway, stacking the theatrical cards most definitely in this production’s favor and fulfilling our hopes and desperate desires.
But the ‘WOW’ is really in the powerful “You Oughta Know” that blows the roof off of this Broadway house. Sung to power-house perfection midway through Act Two by the incredible Lauren Patten (Broadway’s Fun Home, Off-Broadway’s The Wolves), the anthem tears into your soul as if Patten has been embodied by that younger angry Morissette we all fell so strongly for back in the day, causing the audience to leap to its feet in a dazzled state of wonder. It’s truly worth the wait, breaking every preconceived notion and sending shivers of excitement through our systems. It is oddly sung by a secondary character, Jo, but it carries more emotional weight and baggage than almost anything else. She electrifies the song, manifesting a rock star anthem magistery, and thanks to the musical direction by Bryan Perri (Broadway’s Wicked) and the music supervision, orchestrations, and arrangements by Tom Kitt (Broadway’s SpongeBob Squarepants, Everyday Rapture), with music coordination by Michael Aarons (Broadway’s Moulin Rouge!), the piece flies upward to the rafters and rarely comes down. Not to say the rest of the cast or performances are any less worthy of our adoration, particularly Nora Schell (Barrington’s Company) and her strong stage presence, but there is nothing quite like that “You Oughta Know” moment. It will stay with you far beyond anything else that exists in this tightly wound musical. So will Patten’s breakout performance, not just in that one song, but in her total rock star embodiment throughout.
It’s all pretty compelling stuff in Jagged Little Pill, although the plot is filled to the brim with too many different roadways and important political statements. The #MeToo and #YouAreNotAlone movements get their placard waving moments, thanks in part to the strongly formulated and detailed story line revolving around Bella. She is intensely portrayed by the magnificently heart-breaking Kathryn Gallagher (Broadway/Deaf West’s Spring Awakening) highlighting a slice of darkness by her intense rendition of the song, “Predator“. It’s the hardest pill to swallow, her pain-filled story, especially when aligned with Mary Jane’s, as it is done with great intention and with thoughtful process. The psychotherapist in me was proud in their handling and word choices, giving survivor guidance and clear vision to a messy upsetting violation.
Entwined in that tragedy, is the surprisingly well thought out connection to the perfect boy wonder and prodigal son, Nick Healy, played with a deep and earnest passion by the very good Derek Klena (Broadway’s Anastasia). That moment when Bella points out to him the unfairness of ‘being believed’ is as powerful and smart as one can imagine. Naturally, his song, “Perfect” fits him and his predicament all too well, as it encompasses and form fits the scenario and the character with ease. Maybe almost too much. Here lies one of the more complex issues I have with the musical. To make some of these songs work, and they do most defiantly, some of the moments are too literal with plot twists and turns feeling somewhat unnecessarily forced or contrived, like the dynamically well framed church scene. Do we really need all the frenetic action around the central character? The song works solidly on its own, without the physical presence of a priest and the kinetic energy that surrounds sometimes masking or getting in the way of the emotional core. Husband and father, Steve, played beautifully by the strong voiced Sean Allan Krill (Broadway’s Honeymoon in Vegas) also falls victim to that crime. His inclusion, at least in Act One, is functional at best with his duet “So Unsexy” feeling more like an excuse than a good reason. He makes it up, though, bringing me closest to tears when he bares his heart and soul in and to “Mary Jane“. But why, in that particular moment does he not reach out and touch her? It’s something he has been trying to do from the beginning.
The wise inclusion and creation of handsome new kid on the block, Phoenix, played perfectly by the endearing Antonio Cipriano (BVP’s Brighton Beach Memoirs), feels completely authentic, but somewhat too convenient, without having much overall meaning to the main weight of the story presented. I wanted more of him, as his character seems interesting and his voice strong, in the same way that I also wanted more of Jo. She could and should have a whole musical revolving just around her, to be frank, but in Jagged, these two and their competitive relationship with the teenage adopted “Unprodigal Daughter“, Frankie, played by the least effective member of the cast, Celia Rose Gooding (AMAS’s FAME: The Musical, Urinetown) is more compelling than the angry Frankie and her journey. The daughter is saddled with an unfocused conflict with her mother, one that hangs over the air like a stereotype, without clarity or specific structure. Mother and daughter fight, as I was told by my theatre companion, but usually those battles have a sharp focus. The lines are never this hazy and unclear, or at least, so overly ripe. Gooding’s singing feels the most strained of the group, failing to register as convincingly in the comparative Alanis struggle inside our heads. Gooding sings well with the softer “That I Would Be Good” performed neatly with the sexy Phoenix as well as the sensual “Head Over Feet“, but the iconic “Ironic” doesn’t feel as true or organic as it should. Her storyline also doesn’t grab at our hearts with the same amount of energy it is given presenting an imbalance. It forces us to ask the question who is really the organic center and heroine of the story. Wisely, the direction since Boston has sharpened the focus away from Frankie, which in a way has settled the show into something that connects easier and better.
The choreography, by the inventive and very skilled Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui (Joe Wright’s film “Anna Karenina“) has been vastly improved since Boston, finding a more organic tonic dashed forcibly over its design. Her movements feel strongly organic to the source material, giving a punk rock esthetic to the presentation as if grown out of the earth of one of Alanis’ energetic concerts. Her work shines the most emotionally dynamic within the scenario with the mother, Mary Jane, perfectly embodied by Elizabeth Stanley (Broadway’s On The Town), who, because of a car accident that results in an addiction to pills strives for complete perfection and total control of herself and all those around her. There is a moment when dancer Heather Lang (“Fosse/Verdon“) takes over the inner workings of Mary Jane, finding a heart-wrenching grace in a brilliantly choreographed collapse, in the same way Lang also takes over the drunken party scene with equal tense focus. Falling hopeless over the couch’s edge, Stanley as mother Mary Jane, shines in the central spotlight, giving an edgy clarity for the whole show, climaxing in the gorgeously twisted rendition of “Uninvited”. In Boston, the focus of Jagged Little Pill was bi-focal, but now, Mary Jane has taken the central theatrical spotlight, giving her character full rein to flourish. Stanley is so captivatingly stunning as the addicted mother, trembling on the edge, bringing a darkly disturbed and angry ingredient to her love and familial relationships. This is particularly evident within the brilliant “Thank U”, watching her need and passion rearing its glorious head in just the nick of time.
As directed by the wonderfully electric Diane Paulus (Broadway’s Waitress), one of the most difficult aspects of the new musical, Jagged Little Pill is for the ultimate Alanis fan to find a way to separate the analytical and memory-infused mind from the compelling and complex story that sits inside the much improved book by the wonderfully smart Diablo Cody (“Juno”, “Young Adult”). Each musical moment within the show’s complex struggle for identity on all fronts, my brain had a hard time not comparing and contrasting to the real Alanis. This was a far easier thing to do on Broadway than when I saw it in Boston. There, I had a difficult time releasing the mind from wondering what iconic song would be next, how would it fit into the story line, and more importantly, or let me re-phrase that, more dangerously, how will each performance of each song compare to that magical voice that exudes from Morissette’s? Because, to be frank, nothing will sound as perfectly tuned-in to the song as Morrissette’s recorded performances of each (although Patton comes pretty darn close). Second time around though, it was much easier to sit back and let it all wash over me, especially because of its fine structure and strong performances. The music is sublime and even when it takes a process to get to a place of acceptance, I was able to silence that other voice and swallow that Jagged Little Pill happily with an ease that surprised my senses. Its heart and soul are exactly in the right place, thanks to some reworking from Boston and a determination to get it just right. So Thank U, Alanis, for being so decidedly awesome and giving me a new way to listen and feel your magical and powerfully personal songs.