I don't know enough about Canadian pop diva Alanis Morissette's music to be a fan, but I'd heard a lot of good things about the musical “Jagged Little Pill” inspired by her eponymous multi-award-winning 1995 rock album, so I was excited about the Chicago premiere of the North American tour stopping briefly at the Nederlander Theatre.
Some initial advice for theatergoers in a similar position: Listen to the album in advance or, better yet, to the original Broadway cast recording from 2019 (available on YouTube), because the show, with lyrics by Morissette and music mostly by her and Glen Ballard, includes songs from her other albums and two written just for the production.
If you are not familiar with them, you'll miss at least half the lyrics, especially for the numbers that crescendo into anthems, of which there are many. Ensemble efforts seem to be dicier than solos, despite the fine work of music supervisor, orchestrator and arranger Tom Kitt and music director and conductor Matt Doebler, who leads the excellent onstage band in almost two dozen hits, among them “You Oughta Know,” “Head Over Feet,” “Hand In My Pocket,” and “Ironic.”
These are cannily incorporated into a book by Diablo Cody that goes way beyond a problem-centric movie-of-the-week to take on a host of social issues and ills. Arguably too many, in fact — or enough to be ripe for parody. One redeeming feature, however, is a good dose of humor including lots of sitcom-worthy one liners.
At the center is the Healy family, the seemingly perfect suburban couple Steve (Chris Hoch) and Mary Jane (Heidi Blickenstaff, reprising her role on Broadway) and their seemingly perfect children, college-bound Nick (Dillon Klena) and his 16-year-old sister Frankie (Lauren Chanel).
Mary Jane's annual Christmas letters bookend the action and try to put an upbeat spin on their lives, but we soon learn that Steve and Mary Jane have drifted apart. He not only spends 60 hours a week at the office, rarely seeing his family, he's also hooked on internet porn. MJ has become addicted to painkillers after suffering injuries in a car crash and, no longer able to get prescription refills, she's turned to buying drugs on the street. The person she's proudest of is Nick, who's just been accepted at Harvard, but the pressure she puts on him to be perfect is taking a toll. Frankie, who is adopted, feels ignored, and being Black in a white family makes matters worse.
And there's more. Frankie comes out to her parents as bisexual, but when her non-binary partner Jo (Jade McLeod) finds her in bed with new boyfriend Phoenix (Rishi Golani) and tells her parents, there's hell to pay. Frankie is furious about their anger over her consensual sex, since their attitude toward Nick's friend Bella (Allison Sheppard) being sexually assaulted at a house party is to tell him and Frankie not to get involved for fear of damaging the family's reputation. MJ's attitude to Bella's attack, dealt with at length, is all the more shameful because she was also assaulted as a college student (and couldn’t bring herself to tell anyone).
Not surprisingly, the Healy family trauma comes to a head with MJ's overdose on opioids laced with fentanyl but, by the end, everyone has undergone a transformation that supposedly makes them better. The scene of MJ struggling with a dancer as her inner self is one of the most effective staged by director Diane Paulus and choreographer and movement director Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. In general, the gyration-heavy dancing conjures up “Hair,” grunge and so-so street hip-hop, as do Emily Rebholz's costumes.
While the acting and singing are strong, the staging is rather frenetic — except for a few really nifty effects, among them a church scene. Particularly distracting is Justin Townsend's lighting, a mix of neon bars and colored spots (sometimes shined right in our eyes) that suggests a rock concert more than a stage play.
Overall, I was happy to see “Jagged Little Pill” but have a hard time believing it garnered 15 Tony Award nominations. (It won two, for best book of a musical and best featured actress in a musical.) Its “more is more” approach arguably is just too much unless, of course, you are a Morissette aficionado.
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