Regional Reviews: Raleigh/Durham
Jagged Little Pill
Built around the music and lyrics by the Grammy-winning team of artist Alanis Morissette and producing collaborator Glen Ballard, the title is taken from her 1995 album of the same name. Morissette's music has become iconic over the decades, blending sounds of alternative rock with post-grunge as well as pop. Her catalogue is as beautiful as it is haunting, exploring themes of unsuccessful relationships, aggression, and angst. Academy Award-winning writer Diablo Cody wrote a Tony-winning book that uses these songs to tell the story of the Healy family: matriarch Mary Jane (Heidi Blickenstaff), father Steve (Chris Hoch), son Nick (Dillon Klena), and adopted daughter Frankie (Lauren Chanel).
We are introduced to the Healys via a Christmas letter that Mary Jane sends out every year, and though she paints a pretty picture of perfection, personal and family tensions are soon revealed. Mary Jane is battling addiction to opioids, Steve is becoming more distant with an addiction to pornography, Frankie grapples with her sexual and racial identities, and Nick is struggling to be the perfect child his parents expect him to be. The family drama unfolds with heart-wrenching truth and at times engaging humor, while a dancing "Greek chorus" (costumed in stereotypical mid-1990s attire by Emily Rebholz) provides symbolic movement and character pairing to evoke the mental states expressed in song.
Under the skillful hand of award-winning director Diane Paulus, this production feels less like a musical and more like a play with music. Though the characters sing throughout, there is a distinct difference between scenes of book dialogue and musical moments. This is assisted by the creative lighting design of Justin Townsend, whose cues signify the changes. Riccardo Hernandez's sparse scenic design is enhanced by Lucy Mackinnon's video projections that display on moving background flats.
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's choreography and movement direction are sometimes more of a distraction than an addition to the storytelling, but there are some really clever and emotional moments of storytelling in movement. Morrisette's "Smiling" is staged as a day in the life of Mary Jane, which runs backward from the grocery store to her spin class to running out of pills at the beginning of her day–it's a true masterwork of stagecraft. Likewise, the song "Uninvited" presents a split personality of Mary Jane in conflict with a dancing alternate version of herself who embodies the withdrawal she is facing.
I am a fan of Morrisette's music and knew many of the songs before seeing the production, but the band playing high above the actor's heads on stage drowned out much the singing at times at the performance I attended, making it difficult to understand lyrics I already knew.
The entire cast is strong and Broadway caliber. The eleven o'clock number is Morissette's classic, "You Oughta Know," sung with gusto by the character of Jo (Jade McLeod), Frankie's girlfriend, as she brings to an end what has been a largely one-sided relationship. Jo has little stage time compared to the main family, but McLeod makes the most of each moment. The true star of this show, though, in song, emotion, and comic timing, is Heidi Blickenstaff, whose honest portrayal of Mary Jane is peppered with anguish and heart. And what a voice! It has been a while since I had chills hearing someone sing on a live stage. Ms. Blickenstaff brings it!
This story is heavy and may be traumatic for some. It is made clear in the program that the show has strong language, adult themes, drug use, and moments of sexual violence that some may find upsetting. This might not be for everyone, but if you are prepared, it can be a moving piece of theatre, and by the end, it seems that Mary Jane has come to appreciate the "perfect imperfections" of her life and embrace the philosophy of "You Live, You Learn." May we all do the same.
Jagged Little Pill is presented by Truist Broadway and runs through through March 5, 2023, at Durham Performing Arts Center, 123 Vivian St. Durham For tickets and information, please visit www.dpacnc.com, visit Ticket Center at DPAC in person, or call 919-680-2787. For more information on the tour, visit
Lyrics: Alanis Morissette