Past Reviews

Broadway Reviews

Jagged Little Pill

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - December 5, 2019

Jagged Little Pill. Lyrics by Alanis Morissette. Music by Alanis Morissette and Glen Ballard. Book by Diablo Cody. Additional music by Michael Farrell and Guy Sigsworth. Directed by Diane Paulus. Music supervisor, orchestrator, and arranger Tom Kitt. Movement director and choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. Scenic design by Riccardo Hernández. Costume design by Emily Rebholz. Lighting Design by Justin Townsend. Sound design by Jonathan Deans. Video design by Lucy Mackinnon. Hair, wig, and makeup design by J. Jared Janas. Music director and conductor Bryan Perri. Music coordinator Michael Aarons. Cast: Kathryn Gallagher, Celia Rose Gooding, Derek Klena, Sean Allan Krill, Lauren Patten, Elizabeth Stanley, Annelise Baker, Yeman Brown, Jane Bruce, John Cardoza, Antonio Cipriano, Ken Wulf Clark, Laurel Harris, Logan Hart, Zach Hess, Max Kumangai, Heather Lang, Ezra Menas, Kelsey Orem, Yana Perrault, Nora Schell, Kei Tsuruharatani, and Ebony Williams.
Theatre: Broadhurst Theatre, 235 West 44th Street (Between Broadway and 8th Avenue)

Celia Rose Gooding, Derek Klena, Elizabeth Stanley,
and Sean Allan Krill

Photo by Matthew Murphy
Jagged Little Pill, opening tonight at the Broadhurst Theatre, is arguably messy and overly ambitious at times. But damn if it doesn't set a new aspirational standard for the subgenre referred to mostly in scoffing terms as the "jukebox musical." It's all thanks to uniformly strong performances, Diane Paulus's direction that emphasizes the spirit of collaboration, and Diablo Cody's emotionally truthful book about characters who face believable real-life problems.

It is the latter element, the storytelling, that surprised me the most, given that the show draws largely from singer-songwriter Alanis Morissette's brilliantly überangsty 1995 megahit album of the same title. That recording, which I replayed a couple of times ahead of seeing the show, still has the capacity to sear the mind's eye with its unconstrained tales of pain and rage. Accordingly, I went into the theater expecting to be blasted away by something occupying the realm of mental extremis.

If I did get blasted away at times, it was because of the pumped-up amplification, as if the show were meant to be heard by passersby on 44th Street. Not necessary, because the songs (nearly two dozen, from the Jagged Little Pill album and others by Morissette, including two new numbers) are terrific, the singing is terrific, and the band is terrific. But before we go there, let's talk about the story created by Diablo Cody, probably best known as the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Juno.

Meet the Healys: Mary Jane (Elizabeth Stanley) and Steve (Sean Allan Krill); and their teenage children, son Nick (Derek Klena) and daughter Frankie (Celia Rose Gooding). They are your typical suburban Connecticut family, or at least that's the way Mary Jane, ever mindful of their public image, wants the members of her social set to see them. When we first meet them, they present themselves in a cartoonish pose on the sofa, as Mary Jane is composing their annual bragging Christmas letter. So much to celebrate! There was Steve's promotion at work, Frankie's artistic endeavors, and, the icing on the cake, Nick's acceptance into Harvard! So, happy happy joy joy all around, until the truth underneath the truth begins to reveal itself.

The problems faced by the teens are not all that atypical—in life or in the world of musical theater. Nick is buckling under the weight of the "perfect child" syndrome, while Frankie, who is the modestly rebellious black adopted daughter of the white Healys, is seeking to figure out where she fits in familially, socially, and sexually (she is involved in an ongoing romantic relationship with a girl and a budding one with a boy). As with most teens, Nick and Frankie are only vaguely aware of their parents' struggles, including their dangerously unraveling marriage. To peel back the layers even further, we later learn that Mary Jane is encumbered by a losing battle against an even deeper pain she is no longer able to deny or suppress.

The problems faced by the Healys would be more than enough to build the show around. But there is more, as we learn about a wild drunken party attended by Nick, Frankie, and some of their friends from school. During the party, one of their classmates, Bella (Kathryn Gallagher), passes out and is raped.

Elizabeth Stanley and Heather Lang
Photo by Matthew Murphy
From the perspective of tying the show's many plot threads together, here's where things get tricky. The sexual assault is the necessary element that connects the dangling strands of the Healys' stories. And while it and the character of Bella are handled respectfully within the plot, her plight is of such significance that it demands to be much more front and center. Yet Bella is mostly kept in the background, more of a symbol than a character. She is even deprived of the key song that should be hers to deliver, the breathtaking "You Oughta Know." Instead, that one goes to Frankie's girlfriend Jo (Lauren Patten), who, if she truly is torn up by Frankie's interest in a male classmate, Phoenix (Antonio Cipriano), we have never been shown anything to suggest the depth of feeling that would earn her the right to perform this. No question but that Ms. Patten sings the bejesus out of the number, but it is a self-contained applaud-drawing concert performance that lies outside of the plot and throws the story off balance.

Much more carefully constructed within the framework of the story is the gradual collapse of Mary Jane, devastatingly captured in the song "Uninvited." That number is accompanied vocally by the company and brilliantly danced by Heather Lang to Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's often thrilling and, in this case, nightmarish choreography, offering up a stunning reflection of Mary Jane's ultimate meltdown. More than anything (including "You Oughta Know"), this is the emotional high point of the show, where song and movement and lighting and direction meld into a perfect theatrical moment.

All told, Jagged Little Pill explores territory that is more realistic and psychologically complex than you'd typically encounter in a musical of this sort. The first act, in particular, mostly sticks to its portrait of its troubled characters without resorting to entering the gothic land of a Carrie or the dark comedy territory of a Heathers. The show overall is stronger for this. Its "too-muchness" is a matter of too many plot strands rather than over-the-top situations, and, for whatever flaws it encompasses, it is far better than almost any other jukebox musical I can think of.