Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Boston

Jagged Little Pill
American Repertory Theater
Review by Nancy Grossman


Elizabeth Stanley and Cast
Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva
Jagged Little Pill is a new musical crafted from the 1995 ground-breaking album of the same name by Alanis Morissette. The rallying cry of a generation is as powerfully relevant today, making a no holds barred examination of adolescent angst, family dysfunction, addiction, and psychological and emotional pain. In American Repertory Theater Artistic Director Diane Paulus' vision, with book by Diablo Cody, Jagged Little Pill is raw and explosive in portraying anger and sadness, yet poignant and triumphant as its characters become empowered and learn how to heal their damaged souls, ultimately expressing their true selves.

The story opens at Christmastime, with the Healys, a picture-perfect family, composing their annual holiday letter detailing how swell everything is, until the veil is lifted and we begin to see the turmoil beneath the surface. Type-A mom Mary Jane (Elizabeth Stanley, stellar) outdoes and outshines all the other moms, but only with the fortification of ever-increasing handfuls of pills, illegally-sourced opioids, to quell the pain from a serious car accident. Dad Steve (Sean Allan Krill) is the hard-working, mostly absent breadwinner who sublimates his sexual needs with his internet porn hobby. The kids are polar opposites, with fair-haired son Nick (Derek Klena) about to enter his dream college, and adopted African-American daughter Frankie (Celia Gooding) trying to figure out her sexuality and how she can fit into this family.

The book is overstuffed, especially considering how adeptly the lyrics and music develop character and move the story forward. Every song is a mini-musical, propelled by the inventive choreography by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and the athleticism and artistry of the dancers. Music director Bryan Perri leads a vigorous band, situated upstage on a pair of sleds, giving full-throat to music supervisor Tom Kitt's orchestrations and arrangements. (As one who normally uses an assisted listening device, I did not require it for this production.) And speaking of full-throated, all of the vocalists are incredible, but the mantle for the number one edgy, jagged and raw performance goes to Lauren Patten (Jo) for her showstopping "You Oughta Know," garnering a sustained and well-deserved standing ovation midway through the second act.

Paulus subscribes to a minimalist standard for the design of Jagged Little Pill. Scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez employs a series of angular, freestanding walls on wheels which are rotated into position by the ensemble. With video projected onto the walls (designer Finn Ross), scenes take place in the Healy house, the school, along a railroad bed, Manhattan, a counselor's office, a church, and numerous other locales. Spectacular lighting effects (Justin Townsend) and sound design (Jonathan Deans) augment and differentiate the scenes, as well. Costume designer Emily Rebholz provides specific details to help define the characters.

While there are moments when the activity and the number of bodies onstage feels like over-stimulation, the overall effectiveness of the production is boosted, and partially defined, by the kinetic nature of the storytelling. Elements of Cherkaoui's choreography are unlike anything I've seen before, with highlights being the fluid expression of one character's drunkenness and another's drug overdose, both portrayed as out-of-body experiences by members of the chorus in tandem with the character actors. Paulus' direction is masterful, drawing stunning performances from the entire cast and crafting a seamless production that, with a little cutting, is almost ready for prime time. She proves that Morissette's album is stage-worthy and relevant nearly a quarter century after it dropped. It is anything but a nostalgia piece and it just may turn out that it catches fire with a new generation. As for the rest of us, "You live, you learn." Jagged Little Pill may be the wake-up call we all need.

Jagged Little Pill, through July 15, 2018, by American Repertory Theater at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge MA. For tickets and information, call the box office at 617-547-8300 or visit www.americanrepertorytheater.org.

Music by Alanis Morissette and Glen Ballard, Lyrics by Alanis Morissette, Book by Diablo Cody, Additional Music by Michael Farrell and Guy Sigsworth; Scenic Design, Riccardo Hernandez; Costume Design, Emily Rebholz; Lighting Design, Justin Townsend; Sound Design, Jonathan Deans; Video Design, Finn Ross; Wig, Hair, and Make-up Design, J. Jared Janas; Music Director, Bryan Perri; Production Stage Manager, Ira Mont; Music Supervision, Orchestrations and Arrangements, Tom Kitt; Choreography, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui; Directed by Diane Paulus

Cast (in order of appearance): Elizabeth Stanley, Sean Allan Krill, Celia Gooding, Derek Klena, Lauren Patten, Logan Hart, Antonio Cipriano, Kathryn Gallagher; The Chorus: Jane Bruce, John Cardoza, Antonio Cipriano, Kathryn Gallagher, Laurel Harris, Logan Hart, Max Kumangai, Soph Means, Sean Montgomery, Nora Schell, Whitney Sprayberry, Kei Tsuruharatani, Ebony Williams


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