Alanis Morisette’s iconic music and lyrics come to theatrical life in JAGGED LITTLE PILL. This jukebox musical is a well-structured and entertaining example of the art form. Book writer Diablo Cody’s storyline nicely weaves Morisette’s narrative-driven songs into the plot. Diane Paulus’s direction keeps that story moving—though the choreography and movement from Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui aren’t a natural fit—particularly in disconnected stretches of interpretative dance).
JAGGED LITTLE PILL is mainly a testament to the brilliant narrative qualities of Morisette’s songs. Each song in-and-of-itself tells a story and offers a rally cry, personal, political, or both. Morisette’s songs are inherently theatrical and emotional, making them ripe for incorporation into a jukebox musical. With lyrics by Morisette, music by Morisette and Glen Ballard (and with additional music from Michael Farrell and Guy Sigsworth), the song catalog provides a rich backdrop for story and character building. Admittedly, Cody’s characters often trade in archetypes, and the plot sometimes feels like a kitchen sink catch-all for contemporary issues from racism to sexual assault to drug abuse. That said, the book scenes and the songs fit together naturally, and the book treats its more serious subject matters with appropriate care and attention.
JAGGED LITTLE PILL focuses on the Healy family, a seemingly picture-perfect unit living in an idyllic Connecticut suburb. Of course, as a surprise to no one, all’s not actually so rosy with the Healys. The musical’s key protagonist and matriarch Mary Jane Healy (Heidi Blickenstaff, the unquestionable star of the show) has a secret Oxycodone addiction and a secret traumatic past from which she’s never fully healed. Her husband Steve Healy (Chris Hoch) is your typical suburban dad workaholic, well-meaning but oblivious. Nick (Dillon Klena) is the first-born, proverbial golden child who’s just been accepted to Harvard University. Youngest Frankie (Lauren Chanel) is adopted and going through what her parents perceive as a rebellious streak, as she tries to reconcile her identity as a Black woman in an extremely white town and navigate her dual love interests in her long-term romantic partner Jo (Jade McLeod) and the new boy in town, Phoenix (Rishi Golani). The musical also introduces Bella (Allison Sheppard), a friend and classmate of Nick, who must contend with what it means to be a survivor after popular boy Andrew (Jason Goldston) sexually assaults her at a party.
If this seems like a lot of characters, it is. But JAGGED LITTLE PILL makes it easy to keep track of them all. Cody’s storyline gives sufficient weight to most of them, and the story smartly centers Mary Jane. Fittingly, Blickenstaff is giving a master-class performance. She feels Mary Jane’s emotions deeply, toeing the line between her facade of togetherness and her breakdowns when she can’t get her Oxycodone fix. It’s a testament to Blickenstaff’s superb skills that she’s emotional at all moments, but her vocals remain technically expert. Blickenstaff uses all of her power as a classic musical theater performer but also incorporates inflections and modulations that beautifully fit Morisette’s musicality. Her performance of the act one finale “Forgiven” is a stunner.
McLeod is Blickenstaff’s equal partner in the Morisette vocals master class. In act two, McLeod brings down the house with “You Oughta Know” in a true musical theater character study. McLeod builds vocally and emotionally as the number progresses, letting Jo’s anger at Frankie move from a simmer to a full-on battle cry.
As Bella, Sheppard also has a powerful voice and takes the lead on the immensely prescient “No.” “What about no do you not understand?” is a blunt but beautiful lyric from this lesser-known Morisette song that’s a stunning addition to the musical. Golani and Klena have naturally lighter tones, but they handle the vocal requirements of their parts well. Klena is affable as Nick, though the character’s underwritten. While Chanel acts the part of Frankie well, I think she’s vocally miscast. I was hoping for a more powerful voice for Frankie, and she seemed to have difficulty maintaining her vocal part in harmonies.
The songs, vocal performances, and the acting scenes are undoubtedly the strongest elements of JAGGED LITTLE PILL. Tom Kitt has orchestrated and arranged the music beautifully for the stage (a fitting task for one of the writers of NEXT TO NORMAL, certainly a kindred musical theater spirit).
I cared less for the ways in which Paulus and Cherkaoui incorporated the ensemble and movement into the show. JAGGED LITTLE PILL has a sizable ensemble of young actors, most mainly playing fellow students in Frankie and Nick’s classes. While the ensemble members provide supplemental vocals, they also show up in spontaneous movement sequences that feel random. In some scenes, Jena VanElslander performs interpretative dances to accompany the numbers. In “Uninvited,” VanElslander becomes a mirror for Blickenstaff as Mary Jane’s breakdown. While she’s a good dancer, the dancing distracted from the number. The production didn’t quite figure out how to connect movement and music.
Riccardo Hernández set gives flashy concert vibes with wide-open playing space for the actors. Emily Rebholz’s costumes are an interesting mix of 90s send-up and contemporary teen angst/suburban mom attire. Lucy Mackinnon’s video designs play up the vanity of Mary Jane, especially in the show’s first scene as family photos are projected while she reads the family’s puffed up Christmas letter. Justin Townsend’s lighting plays nicely with the set to underscore the emotional high and low points of the show.
Ultimately, JAGGED LITTLE PILL is a testament to the narrative power of Morisette’s music and how that 1995 album was incredibly ahead of its time. Especially when delivered by the likes of Blickenstaff, the songs have a renewed and undeniably timely power in this musical theater setting.
The Broadway In Chicago engagement of the JAGGED LITTLE PILL national tour runs through April 23 at the James M. Nederlander Theatre.
Visit Broadwayinchicago.com for tickets.
Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy