Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Jagged Little Pill
Also see Rick's recent review of Kiss Me, Kate
Jagged Little Pill follows a year in the life of a Connecticut suburban family consisting of perfectionist mom Mary Jane, workaholic dad Steve, high-achieving graduating high school senior Nick, and sixteen-year-old Frankie, an adopted daughter with a socially conscious focus who feels out of place within the family. Bad choices by all of them, including Mary Jane's growing addiction to painkillers, spiral the family toward a harsh reckoning.
The musical's book by Diablo Cody has plenty of drama, with some apt bits of comedy. There are many timely and important themes covered here–maybe too many. Addiction, LGBTQ+ discrimination, rape, teenage drinking, bullying, relationship infidelity, white male privilege, and teenage runaways are all serious topics, and having all of them in one package feels overwhelming at times. The plot feels like a season full of afterschool specials, with all of the stereotypical characters present. While the issues are complex, the characters don't convey the depth that would ground the story more soundly, primarily due to the songs providing limited opportunity to provide additional insights.
Those songs are mostly by alternative rock singer/songwriter Alanis Morissette and songwriter/lyricist Glen Ballard, including almost every track from their award-winning album Jagged Little Pill, which dominated the 1995 and 1996 music charts. The music by Morissette and Ballard is pulsating rock with unique but accessible melodies. The lyrics convey the anger, aggression, and angst felt by many young people, often focusing on relationships or commenting on societal problems. Additional music in the show is provided by Michael Farrell and Guy Sigsworth. Two numbers were written specifically by Morissette for the musical, "Smiling" and "Predator". While "Hand in My Pocket," "Ironic," "Head Over Feet," "You Oughta Know," and "You Learn" are great songs, they weren't written for these characters or situations, so they generally just reflect the tone of the story or comment on them at a basic level rather than advancing the story or developing characters like musical theatre songs typically do. Also, because many of the songs are still presented in rock arrangements, lyrics are often difficult to understand.
Director Diane Paulus uses the ensemble members effectively to add some sparkle to numbers that might otherwise only be a character alone onstage singing about their feelings related to something just happened. One memorable directorial choice is staging a song backwards (repeating the previous scene in reverse order). The use of ensemble members to double as personifications of characters' inner turmoil is interesting but likely confusing to many audience members. The lyrical and interpretive choreography by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui certainly captures the physicality that aligns with the angst-ridden songs and characters, but the dances feel a tad repetitious. Matt Doebler leads a fierce eight-piece band that looms behind and above the performance space.
Broadway favorite Heidi Blickenstaff is the headliner for this tour as Mary Jane, but she is out for the entire week-long run here in Cincinnati. Bligh Voth steps up with well-suited acting choices; most audience members wouldn't be able to detect that she was an understudy if the call board didn't say so. As Frankie, Lauren Chanel comes across as an authentic character and with genuine motivations in leading the charge of challenging the societal woes and norms within the story. Chris Hoch (Steve) and Dillon Klena (Nick) do well with less fully drawn roles. All four leads are talented singers. As Jo, Frankie's significant other, Jade McLeod channels the vocal sounds of Morissette and successfully puts across some of the score's best numbers. Allison Sheppard (Bella) and Rishi Golani (Phoenix) likewise do well with their characters and vocals. The ensemble members skillfully cover multiple roles and execute the high-octane dances that accompany many songs.
Riccardo Hernandez's suitable scenic design is mostly smaller elements to supplement the video projections by Finn Ross. The lighting by Justin Townsend sufficiently meets both the theatrical and rock-theme demands. Costumes by Emily Rebholz are straightforward yet appropriate for the leads, and the ensemble members often are adorned in outfits which harken back to the 1990s alt/grunge styles when the source album was new.
On its own merits, Jagged Little Pill is a fine musical, especially of the jukebox variety. However, original musicals such as Next to Normal and Dear Evan Hansen deal with difficult subject matters that impact the nuclear family more effectively, thanks in part to songs written specifically for those characters and plot. The national tour of this musical features talented performers and the show is a definite crowd pleaser.
Jagged Little Pill runs through April 2, 2023, at the Aronoff Center, 650 Walnut St., Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, call 513-621-2787 or visit cincinnati.broadway.com. For more information on the tour, visit jaggedlittlepill.com.