The score of JAGGED LITTLE PILL, defined by the cannon of Canadian-born songwriter and performer Alanis Morissette, confirms she is, as “Rolling Stone” dubbed her, “the queen of alt-rock angst”. The book by Diablo Cody, who won an Oscar for her original screenplay of “Juno” accommodates - sometimes contextually, sometimes thematically - 22 of Morissette’s songs, including all of her chart-busters going back to 1996. Director Diana Paulus – who has energized both the successful Broadway revival of “Pippin” and the recent " Waitress” - cues off Morissette’s rock music and adrenalizes – sometimes aptly, sometimes artificially – a cautionary tale about opioid addiction and its collateral damage to family and community.
Mary Jane (played by Elizabeth Stanley), husband Steve (Sean Allen Krill), son Nick (Derek Klena) and adopted daughter Frankie (Celia Rose Gooding) seem like the successful and contented All-American family living in upper-middle class comfort in privileged Greenwich, Connecticut. Mary Jane, though, is addicted to pain killers prescribed after a car accident. She’s not had sex in over a year with Steve who spends his time working late hours and trawling the internet for porn. African American daughter Frankie, harbors resentment that she was adopted out of her white parents’ noblesse oblige and is in love with her classmate Jo (Lauren Patten), an out lesbian.
All this dysfunction is easily ignored when perfect son Nick gets accepted at Harvard, but, at a late night party, he witnesses the rape of his classmate Bella (Kathryn Gallagher) by his buddy. His sister Frankie (who develops a crush on a boy and comes out as bisexual to her parents) wants him to provide witness for the crime. His mother Mary Jane, swirling deeper into drug dependency, discourages his truth telling: she’s still traumatized from her own sexual assault in college decades before.
Casting is superb as is the singing in the conventionally formatted 2 and half hour musical. There’s a chorus of a 17 youthful performers who flesh out musical sequences with kinetic choreography - much inspired by breakdancing - by Belgian Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, winner of two Olivier Awards for new dance production. Musical supervisor Tom Kitt, who received at Pulitzer Prize for Drama and two Tony Awards for the musical “Next To Normal”, arranges and orchestrates Morissette’s music, co- composed with Glen Ballard, to unified effect. The eight member band is mostly off stage, except where director Paulus stretches for big musical numbers: two platforms, with four musicians each slides in from stage right and left. It smacks a little of rock concert, but it is basically a rock score. Riccardo Hernandez uses a minimum of props: home and school settings are defined by large sliding panels that expediently help keep things moving.
Director Paulus achieves some nifty effect with number “Smiling” where Mary Jane goes through the motions of a daily routine, which culminates in a drug purchase in a back alley: the whole sequence then gets staged backwards dramatizing how behavior that seems ordinary can disguise deep dysfunction. Within the sequence, Paulus mounts some delicious satire of suburban housewives, pre-occupied with social status.
Mr. Cherkaoui’s choreography serves to provide stage movement, often unrelated to story. His dance is best integrated in two sequences with non-featured chorus member Heather Lang who dances the alter ego of Bella being sexually assaulted and also the alter ego of Mary Jane overdosing on the living room sofa still traumatized by her own rape decades before.
Musical highlights are mostly Morissette’s chart-toppers going back to 1996: “Hand in My Pocket”, “Ironic” and the rousing back-to-back “Wake Up” and “Forgiven” which close Act 1. The showstopper belongs to Ms. Patten who belts out a powerful “You Oughta Know” in Act 2.
As an album musical, “Jagged Little Pill” has neither the transcendent thematic arc of “David Byrne’s American Utopia” or “Hadestown” both of which are constructed from music with a previous life. As for book, it doesn’t have the trenchant, narrative power of either “Next to Normal” or “Dear Evan Hansen”, two obvious musical antecedants. Still, “Jagged Little Pill” personalizes the opioid crisis, and the cascading effects of drug addiction. Ms. Cody’s book is most acute and meaningful in linking youthful trauma to adult addiction. The passionate finale “(You Live) You Learn” celebrates recovery and reconciliation.
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