Jagged Little Pill
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Audiences should be prepared to swallow a supersized dose of angst if they choose to attend “Jagged Little Pill,” the new musical at the Broadhurst Theatre, which takes its inspiration – and the majority of its score – from Alanis Morissette’s iconic 1995 Grammy Award-winning album of the same name. Admittedly, while many a modern musical – from “Next to Normal” to “Dear Evan Hansen” – has handled unusually serious topics, I don’t believe any one show has tackled so many hot-button issues at once.
Yes, Morissette’s album (co-written with and produced by Glen Ballard) was far-from-light pop fare, expressing the then-21-year-old’s feelings about everything from female empowerment, sexual freedom and the need to help others. However, those issues are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg here. The show’s book writer, Oscar winner Diablo Cody, has stacked the deck a bit too high as we watch the seemingly perfect suburban Healy family almost literally fall apart at the seams while facing prescription drug addiction, racial identity issues, survivor guilt and rape (among other problems) with nary a light moment in sight.
Ultimately, the show suffer from both its sense of relentless despair, as well as the rather too-busy staging by director Diane Paulus, choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherakou and the equally talented creative team, all of whom seem a tad too desperate to blow up what should be a fairly intimate story just so it can fill a Broadway stage. Often, I wished these talented artists had applied Coco Chanel’s famous quote about wearing too many accessories – “Before you leave the house, take a look in the mirror and take one thing off” – to this enterprise.
Still, Cody deserves kudos for cleverly dividing the plot’s myriad problems among its many major characters (as well, as the score -- which includes a few from her other albums as well as two new ones written for the show), rather than making this a one-woman confessional. Cody also finds some inventive ways to snugly fit Morissette’s sometimes random lyrics into the show’s book. (I was especially impressed by the use of the megahit “Ironic” as a sample writing exercise from one of the show’s teen protagonists). While the singer’s diehard fans may resent that some of the songs have been altered, “Jagged Little Pill” should, in many ways, be considered a blueprint to follow for the zillions of jukebox musical librettists to come.
As for Paulus, she has long proved herself as one of the most astute casters, and that skill is once again at the forefront. Elizabeth Stanley, in the performance of her career, is positively shattering as matriarch Mary Jane, who bravely (if foolishly) attempts to maintain her air of perfection and poise while her world crumbles and almost destroys herself completely in the process. Equally good is Celia Rose Gooding, who makes a smashing Broadway debut in the complex role of her 16-year-old adopted, African-American, bisexual, social activist daughter Frankie (see what I mean) who doesn’t want to just “fit in” to her mother’s world.
In somewhat smaller roles, Lauren Patten combines extreme strength and vulnerability as Frankie’s “butch” girlfriend Jo -- and those qualities are especially apparent in her second-act showstopper “You Oughta Know.” And Kathryn Gallagher proves to be heartbreaking as Bella Fox, Nick’s “trashy” childhood friend, whose “Me Too” storyline proves to be incredibly poignant (and timely).
Somewhat sadly, though, the show’s men are not quite as well drawn as the women. Nevertheless, Sean Allan Krill as the unhappy, work-obsessed Steve Healy, Derek Klena as the Healy’s high-achieving son Nick and Antonio Cipriano as Phoenix, the new kid in school who Frankie falls for, all do first-rate work with what they’re given.
Bella’s big number, by the way, is called “No.” However, my reaction to “Jagged Little Pill” is a somewhat qualified “Yes.”
By Brian Scott Lipton