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Jagged Little Pill
Lyrics by Alanis Morissette; music by Alanis Morissette & Glen Ballard; book by Diablo Cody
Directed by Diane Paulus
Opened December 5, 2019
The Healy family (Celia Gooding, Derek Klena, Elizabeth Stanley and Sean Allan Krill) in Jagged Little Pill (photo: Matthew Murphy)
With her 1995 album Jagged Little Pill, 21-year-old Canadian singer Alanis Morissette was catapulted into the stratosphere. However cringeworthy many of her lyrics were, the songs were raw and angry, instantly memorable and singular, so it’s no surprise that she never approached that level of creativity or success again.
But making a dozen impassioned tunes of post-teen angst the basis of a musical would appear to be foolhardy—and after seeing Jagged Little Pill on Broadway, I realized that my fears were confirmed. It might not have been dramatic enough to put onstage a young woman trying to make sense of relationships; but that might have been more honest than what we get: Diablo Cody’s book concerns a superficially “perfect” middle-class Connecticut family surrounded by seemingly every conceivable social issue in the news recently.
We’re introduced to the Healy (for “healing”—get it?) family: there’s smiling mom Mary Jane, who’s hooked on painkillers and nearly dies from an OD. There’s Frankie, the smart high school daughter who’s adopted, bisexual and black, the progressive trifecta. There’s older brother Nick, the favorite, who witnesses a date rape at a drunken party and doesn’t do the right thing. And there’s dad Steve, who watches porn at work and is generally oblivious to what’s really going on under his roof.
The problem isn’t that Jagged Little Pill tackles heavy-duty issues, it’s that it does so without delving even semi-deeply into them; after bringing up one, it moves quickly onto the next. This creates a jagged little tonal problem for the show, most obviously when Morissette’s still-powerful smash hit “You Oughta Know”—turned into a brilliant showstopper by Lauren Patten as Jo, Frankie’s former girlfriend who discovered that Frankie slept with a male classmate—brings down the house, immediately followed by a harrowing account of the school-party date rape, a moment as awkward as Morissette’s teen-diary lyrics. Putting a teen’s anger over her girlfriend cheating on the same level as date rape is false equivalence of the highest order.
The bright spot of Cody’s book is “Ironic,” with its infamously ill-chosen lyrics about events that actually aren’t ironic. One day in class, Frankie reads from her own short story, which comprises the song’s lyrics. As she sings, other students—and the teacher—pipe in exasperatedly about the unironic nature of her passages. But that amusing self-reference only undermines the rest of the musical’s surface-level exploration.
Jagged Little Pill has been brashly directed by Diane Paulus, whose visual tour de force is a clever rewinding of the action during the song “Smiling,” one of Morissette and Glen Ballard’s two new songs, showing Mary Jane’s desperately buying her pills from a dealer after she can’t get a new prescription. Paulus has been immeasurably helped by marvelously suggestive sets by Riccardo Hernandez and insinuatingly evocative lighting by Justin Townsend.
Songs old and new are well-handled by a cast that’s otherwise unable to create real characters out of ciphers. Along with Patten’s formidable Jo, the show’s standouts are Celia Rose Gooding’s Frankie and Elizabeth Stanley’s Mary Jane, all of whom at least nod toward complexity in an otherwise mainly cartoonish 2-1/2 hours.
Broadhurst Theater, 235 West 44th Street, New York, NY
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